I’ve always been a very passionate person, and one of the advantages of working as a teacher is that my job allows me to channel my passions in very productive ways. I care very deeply about improving the lives of other people, and my work allows me to do that improvement in a very hands-on way, something that lets me get immediate feedback on my efforts. That feedback isn’t as readily evident in an online class as it is in an in-person class, but it’s still there, and the number of my former students who continue to follow me on social media years after they left my classrooms has been a tremendous source of strength for me over the years, especially at a time like this when I don’t have the immediacy of campus life to remind me of my purpose.
The root of the agony I’ve felt over the past few months — and I truly believe that “agony” is the best word for that feeling — is that my passion has created a deep internal conflict in me, a conflict that is renewed every time I hear anything about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, I desperately want to be able to teach in-person classes again as quickly as possible. Not only are my teaching methodologies rooted deeply in the kinds of discussions that are best facilitated with everyone in a single room, but I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of the social aspects of college life. Especially for young students getting to experience their first taste of life out from under their parents’ thumbs, that part of the college experience can be as beneficial to their development as the classes they take, and it’s impossible to replicate that experience for students who may be stuck in their bedrooms taking online classes for the foreseeable future.
My responsibility to my students extends beyond the material I teach them in my classes, though, and when a pandemic is not only continuing to rage across the world — and getting worse here in America — asking students to literally risk their lives in order to come to a physical classroom is something I cannot justify. No matter how important the lessons I have to teach my students are, they aren’t life-or-death important, and that’s why I made the decision last month to hold all of my fall semester classes online (except for one class which is — at least for now — being forced to meet in-person, albeit with twenty-five students in an auditorium that seats over two hundred). I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer learning how to hold better online classes, and I have a feeling that my research in this area will continue well past the end of this pandemic. As desperately as I want to hold in-person classes this fall, the health and well-being of my students has to come first. It simply has to.
We’ve only had fifteen identified cases of COVID-19 in this county so far, and that number has held steady for weeks now. Every county we share a border with has had at least twice as many cases, so we’re pretty much the opposite of a hot spot for the pandemic at this moment. I’ve always been concerned about what might happen if students come back here later this summer — we have a much higher percentage of international students than most colleges and universities, and we also have a lot of students from bigger cities like Milwaukee and Madison, which have much higher rates of infection — but the fact that we’ve been so fortunate in this county was at least one thing I could point to as evidence that maybe reopening our campus wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Even though COVID-19 cases in this county haven’t gone up yet, it now feels like only a matter of time until that happens. Not only are new daily cases peaking anew in both the country and the state, but there’s increasing messaging from those in power to the effect that we’re all just going to have to “get used to” the growing death tolls, the health risks to all of us, and the lack of any meaningful support for the least fortunate. We’re likely to see a rash of evictions now that the flimsy supports we got a few months ago are disappearing, and adding a homelessness crisis on top of this pandemic is only going to make the fatality rate increase, to say nothing of all the suffering that isn’t so tidily quantifiable. All the horrifying headlines of recent days are likely going to keep getting worse in the coming weeks and months, and I don’t even want to think about how high the death toll will get before everyone can finally get their hands on a COVID-19 vaccine.
I am incredibly fortunate to not only have a job that will allow me to work from my apartment for as long as I need to, but that also allows me to have extra time in the summers to do additional work; in addition to working on improving my online teaching skills, I’m also continuing to research my next book. It would be incredibly easy for me to just shut up and keep my head down, do the work I need to do in order to keep this roof over my head and food on my plate, and distance myself emotionally from how this pandemic is decimating the rest of the world. I can’t do that, though. Future students of mine are likely dealing with the impossible choice of going back to work, and taking the risk of exposing themselves (and the loved ones they live with) to the dangers of the pandemic, or else losing their jobs and maybe even their homes. Even if they’re secure right now, there’s a significant chance that they have relatives who aren’t so lucky, and those relatives could be in places where new COVID-19 cases are soaring even higher than they are in Wisconsin. Even if these issues weren’t going to affect the performance of my students once they start taking classes with me, on a personal level I just can’t ignore the suffering and injustice being perpetrated on the public right now.
Our next semester is scheduled to start on the second of September, and a lot could happen in the next six weeks to affect the trajectory of the pandemic and how serious things could get here. The failure of America to adequately address the pandemic is becoming more evident every day, though, and unless conditions stop their steep descent in the next month, I find it hard to believe that any educational institution, from pre-schools to graduate schools, will be able to open their doors in the autumn with a clear conscience. Education is vital to the future of this country and its inhabitants, but not as vital as sheer survival.