In light of the recent COVID-19 outbreak on campus, some students have been experiencing breakout-room déjà vu as a handful of professors have been faced with the decision to either navigate hybrid learning or temporarily make the switch to remote learning for their classes.
Throughout the summer, the College repeatedly emphasized its commitment to in-person classes. However, upon their return to campus, faculty and staff have had to navigate the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a surge of breakout cases in the last week.
For some faculty, including Associate Professor of History Meghan Roberts, the potential for things to go wrong has been lingering in the back of their minds since the original announcement. “We were led to believe that we should be teaching in person and that’s definitely the default and that’s what we should be striving for. I’ve been worried about that since they announced their COVID measures in the summer,” said Roberts.
Batool Khattab, a lecturer in Arabic, was also apprehensive of the College’s plans for an (eventually) mask-less fall. This uneasiness was informed by her experience working at Middlebury Language Schools over the summer.
“Towards the end of the program [at Middlebury], things got out of control, and there were positive cases…we had to resort one more time to [a] hybrid mode of teaching, and some students left—that left me with some vague questions. We’re not completely out of the woods,” Khattab said. “I had mixed feelings. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t happy to be back on campus and to see the students.”
Khattab was one of the first faculty members to shift their courses to an online format after hearing of community spread of COVID-19 among students. While Khattab agrees that online learning is far from ideal, it became the only option after students voiced anxieties around returning to in-person class in the wake of a campus outbreak. Khattab chose to stay online until all of her students received a negative test. This was despite not all of her students being considered close contacts.
“So I decided for this particular week to shift to a remote instruction, until I get tested and make sure that everybody else is safe.”
Khattab returned to in-person instruction this Thursday.
“I am excited to go back. We will be cautious as much as we can and we will maintain social distance with masks on,” Khattab said.
While it may have been only a temporary response, Khattab still is optimistic her course can exist off of Zoom for as long as possible.
“My only hope is not to resort back to Zoom [for an extended period of time].”
With students in isolation, other professors have been taking a hybrid approach, including Rusack Professor of Environmental Studies and Earth and Oceanographic Science Philip Camill.
Lab courses, like Camill’s, pose a unique challenge in remote settings, as their content is nearly impossible to replicate virtually. This year, when confronted with positive student cases in his class, Camill began including each isolated student in class via an individual laptop, which can be moved around to facilitate group work and discussions.
While this solution works temporarily, Camill explained that it is not feasible to carry a computer around during field research.
“The lab instructor will have to adapt some of the videos and activities that were done for a remote lab experience. It’s a hybrid model right now for both the class and the lab,” Camill said.
Beyond general online FAQs, faculty members have been left with little concrete guidance on how to respond to students testing positive. According to the Fall 2021 Faculty FAQ page faculty members may move to remote learning only “as a temporary measure and in certain circumstances.”
Dean for Academic Affairs Jennifer Scanlon corroborated the information online in an email to the Orient.
“We are teaching in person this semester. We’ve just implemented mandatory testing once per week for faculty and staff, which adds another layer of safety to our current practices. I have not spoken with faculty who have moved to teaching online but expect that, with rare temporary exceptions, classes will be held in person this semester,” Scanlon wrote.
Additionally, federal law prevents the College from being able to report student cases to professors, leaving that responsibility to the students themselves.
“It’s a very sticky situation where you need to keep confidentiality, but at the same time, you need to make sure that everybody is healthy and protected. It’s a very difficult, sensitive [and] emotional situation for the teacher; there should be specific protocol,” Khattab said. “You cannot leave it to the teachers’ discretion … Sometimes we make mistakes. We’re humans. Specific guidelines, especially during these times is a great idea.”
Some professors, however, appreciate the individual agency to react to situations as they arise.
“This might be one instance where it’s easier for everybody to understand the rules and the guidelines by having one blanket rule,” Camill said. “How you handle the nuts and bolts of individual classes, oftentimes it is better done at the level of individual classes. One-size-fits-all pedagogy usually doesn’t work. Everybody has their own different styles of teaching, and the different classes just operate differently.”
With the focus centering on the health and safety of students and faculty alike, Roberts emphasized that more guidance on how to respond to inevitable student cases would be helpful for professors.
“We all want to make sure that our students who can’t come to class feel like they’re part of the class, and we really want to provide that support for them … [some] guidance would be helpful to make sure that somebody who is not in the thick of it has thought things through in advance,” Roberts said. “And then I could just follow that guidance and trust that [it] is the way to support my student.”