On Monday, I taught in a physical classroom for the first time since March. Everything felt new. New students, of course, but also a new classroom and format, new technologies and protocols, a plethora of new rules. So much was new that I brought printed notes to make sure I remembered everything I had to remind students about — something I haven’t done since my rookie teaching days more than a dozen years ago.
My employer, Temple University, also spent the summer preparing for students’ return — something of a rookie, too, learning the ropes. COVID-19 has upended business as usual for higher education, rendering dense classrooms, crowded dormitories, and lively campuses a potential danger. I’m sure the administration’s planning efforts were time-consuming and stressful, and many of the people involved acted in good faith. I also can’t pretend to comprehend all the political, economic, and other pressures that might have informed the decision to reopen campus despite the obvious perils.
Here’s what I do know: No matter how thorough Temple’s planning, they didn’t anticipate what I experienced in my classroom this week.
My years of college teaching scarcely prepared me for this. Beyond the fear and awkwardness of the COVID classroom, what surprised me most was how nourishing it felt to be there. I loved hearing my students laugh and talk to each other, felt bonded to them more deeply and faster than I’ve ever experienced. The power of that humanity helps to explain why some decision-makers argued to preserve the in-person college experience this semester. Ironically, that powerful humanity may be what makes this experiment a failure — as we’ve already seen at Michigan State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a growing number of colleges and universities around the country.
The return to campus rests upon what Temple calls the four pillars — facial coverings, physical distancing, frequent handwashing, and health monitoring. They draw from the best practices outlined by public health officials and resonate with what’s become the common sense of managing risks amid pandemic life. There is plenty to criticize about these pillars — they do not involve universal testing and say nothing about our North Philadelphia neighbors, for starters. But many of us who work or attend Temple were likely already practicing them, suggesting they might be practical to implement.
The problem with these guidelines, and the return centered around them, is that they expect us to avoid the very things that bring classrooms and campus to life. They depend on us behaving as perfect rational actors, rather than human beings who are vulnerable and sometimes unsure, especially after so many months of isolation. They place responsibility on us as individuals, letting the leaders and systems that fail to protect us off the hook. And they require us to evaluate encounters in black and white when, just days into this semester, I have already seen many shades of gray.
On Monday I taught a group of anxious first years. My voice echoed in the boxy classroom; the back of the room felt far away. Do I wander back there to better engage those students, or do I stay put and keep my distance?
After class, a well-meaning student with an ill-fitting mask approached me to share something sensitive they didn’t want other students to hear. Do I lean in, to respect their privacy, or do I tell them to back off?
Before class, two students who hadn’t seen each other for months gleefully high-fived and shook hands. During class, another fiddled with his mask. Do I pause class to admonish them? Or do I let it slide — these tiny lapses won’t hurt anyone, right?
The answers to these questions are easy in the abstract, but hard in the moment. You understand what I mean if, over the last few months, you’ve had a neighbor stand too close, or seen a store patron half-masked and said nothing. Doing the right thing always sounds easy and righteous, but often doesn’t fit into an interaction’s rhythms. One misstep in a fleeting moment may not land you in the hospital, but a cascade of them, played out hundreds of times across thousands of contacts in a deeply intermingled community, could easily become an uptick of cases. Add that to the many integral parts of college life — lunches, coffees, frisbee games, classes, dates, and yes, parties — and things could rapidly spiral out of control.
After this week, I understand more deeply than before the purpose of our campus community. I get that people need it, not just economically, but emotionally and existentially. I also can see how our good intentions, old habits, and best selves could make it all unravel.
Resting our community’s health on individual compliance is a way of punishing us for what makes us courteous, welcoming, and good — when we hold the door for a stranger, comfort a homesick student, hug a crying friend, or reserve judgment about a colleague’s questionable choices.
To truly keep the community safe demands more than individual vigilance. It requires mindful leadership that can make hard decisions — including closing. I hope Temple does that before it’s too late this semester. Reality doesn’t always go according to plan.