But What About At-Risk Students?

My university, like many others, has announced some modifications for fall semester, but is still trying to do mostly in-person classes. I’m not here to complain about the very difficult decisions that university leadership is making; I am actually quite thankful to be “just” a contract faculty instructor, because these decisions right now are all kinds of Not Fun. And, indeed, in general I think my university’s leadership is doing their best; I think they’re doing a pretty decent job of making informed policy.

They did, in their decisions, advise that instructors who are in at-risk groups may petition to have their courses be online-only, so that they can continue to work from home and continue with distance learning. Again, I think this is a very good idea.

My question is: what about the at-risk students? Will they also be able to take only online classes? So far I haven’t seen any official word on that yet, so I’m hoping that there will be options for students. Students should be allowed to have a choice here.

My big theme around here is student choice. I find it is essential to a good learning experience. I also find that it’s often the last thing considered in policy or pedagogy.

Plenty of research on pedagogy has found that agency matters for engagement, learning, and retention. When students feel like they have control and power over what they’re learning, they learn better. The greatest magic trick of teaching—the hardest and most difficult to master—is relinquishing control of the classroom so that students can take over. Not anarchy, not chaos, but a guided stream that students can navigate independently. I make no claims to having mastered this trick; I just say that it’s my goal because that’s where the real magic happens. That is, the goal is to confer agency to students over the run of a course.

And agency matters more than just in learning. Agency promotes good mental health. Agency fosters life skills that adults need. Agency creates a community of respect. Agency makes things meaningful.

Agency matters in health decisions as well. Agency is the entire foundation of concepts like “informed consent.” I am not an ethics expert, but as far as I know, it matters a great deal if a patient understands what they’re consenting to and what the risks are in a procedure.

University students are not children. They are adults. And this is too often forgotten or overlooked. As adults, they have a right to make informed decisions about their own health and safety. But at the same time, they are adults who are too often in relatively powerless positions, whether in reality or in their perception, having been trained by a prison-like school paradigm to be submissive to authority, and even often still being called “kids” and in other ways being treated as not-really-adults. In short, if the university or their professors tell them to do something, they’ll generally do it (as long as it doesn’t mean speaking in class, I guess).

Which could be very dangerous. Are there professors who don’t take social distancing seriously enough? Absolutely. Are there even more professors who will forget, because they’re so used to easily building group work in the classroom? Absolutely.

We have seen some people arguing that universities will be safe petri dishes of the novel coronavirus, because it doesn’t seem to do as much damage to young people, which most of a university’s students are. And certainly, if we operate under the assumption that a greater percentage of faculty and staff are at risk than students (which is probably true), it makes sense to give the decisions about health and safety to faculty and staff. But that’s just big numbers. We need to remember that, in a population of, for instance, 20,000 students, if just 1% of students are “high risk”, that’s 200 students. That’s a lot of students! And I suspect those made-up numbers are really low-balling the risk here. I suspect, given how many conditions have been shown to increase risk right now, the number is closer to 20% of the student population, but I don’t know for sure. And that’s the point.

But as a faculty member, it isn’t my job nor my place to speculate which among my students might be high-risk; they don’t need to disclose to me if they have high blood pressure or asthma or chronic lung conditions, as those don’t really affect our relationship in any way. And yet I might be putting them at risk by having in-person classes just because I am not a high-risk individual, because they’re going to sign up for the classes they “need,” and my class is likely to be one of those classes. Because of the power differential between myself and a student in the university system, my choices will affect their choices directly.

In a perfect world, students would feel free to choose what is best for their unique situations. But we all know that’s not the way it will actually happen. At-risk students will take unnecessary risks because they will feel pressured so long as there are a larger number of in-person classes.

My inclination is to ask to teach all online simply because I don’t think I can bear on my conscience the knowledge that I may be putting my students at risk by asking them to come into a poorly ventilated classroom (as my classrooms usually are). But at the same time, I myself am not considered high risk right now, so I can’t completely justify it when they invite at-risk faculty only to apply for online teaching. Obviously I don’t know yet what will happen; none of us will for sure. But I will continue to advocate for simply asking the question: “What about at-risk students?”

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