Is the battle for in-person instruction worth it? | #students | #parents

A month into many universities’ fall COVID journey, campuses are bruised by the fight to keep a level of in-person courses as a part of the portfolio of delivery options. The battle for safe face-to-face or hybrid delivery, while keeping this highly contagious virus on the downward trend, involves repeated adjustments. This calibration draws repeat fire from those who would like circumstances to be different and media in search of click-capturing headlines.

The highly politicized discussion of allowing any in-person instruction during COVID has masked the question of why. Why fight to provide access to learners in every mode of delivery possible? Why fight to bring students back on campus? Why are we testing our university’s culture and capacities daily under extraordinary conditions? Why consider a course fraught with peril?

Here’s why – we know the pain of the near-term is worth the long-term fight for individual students, their future and ours. This is especially true for first-generation college students.

Earlier this month, Grand Valley State University worked with officials at our county department of public health who issued a “Staying in Place” order. It requires our students living or studying at our main campus in Allendale to stay home other than to attend class, labs, internships, work or to get necessities. It is in effect from Sept. 17 through Oct. 1.

No one likes further restricting an already limited student experience. But we have to accept the realities of COVID, while keeping learning opportunities as open as possible. The questions fly around if our work is actually all about money or simply the result of administrative naivety. The truth is maintaining a low-density face-to-face option, along with extensive online delivery, comes at the expense of new costs, daily complexities and an extensive communication effort to keep all stakeholders fully informed.

The “why” is embedded firmly in education’s fundamental purpose: To provide opportunities and enable individuals to pursue lives of meaning and professions of purpose. Colleges and universities are challenged to fulfill this mission in an era of COVID and amidst a cultural reckoning of racial injustice.

Higher education’s battle to maintain face-to-face learning, while following all public health guidance, is a struggle worth fighting for, especially if it improves success for those who have to fight just to gain access to our doors.

I am a huge fan of online and hybrid experiences, spending much of my professional life building and scaling them. I have personally witnessed the power and impact of online learning for adults and recognize its potential to reach thousands more. It can be a dynamic medium and is certainly proven to be a game-changer in higher education, even pre-COVID.

However, much like COVID, online and remote learning does not touch everyone equally. Successful adaption to online learning is heavily dependent upon variables associated with access, resonance and learned success strategies to adapt to this medium.

Grand Valley State University is home to more than 40 percent first-generation students. The rapid shift to solely online, without full consideration of learner readiness will come at a cost.

It will have a negative impact on learning, persistence and completion, most significantly on our underserved populations. Research shows the economic cost could last a lifetime.

We know first-generation students, students of color and low-income students, often due to barriers not their fault, have had fewer technology-enabled experiences available to them. McKinsey and Co., in an article subtitled, “The hurt that could last a lifetime,” outlined the many challenges in the K-12 system for low-income Black and Hispanic students who are presented with remote options only.

We know online engagements have yet to effectively replicate the personal interactions and experiences that help younger students grow and develop. There is much work to be done to create more inclusive environments for all learners. The shift to fully online delivery as the only option puts these learners at risk.

We are asking them to forge ahead unprepared — without readiness muscles exercised and thoughtful structures of support, adaption and engagement in place. And we ask all this when the transition from high school to college is already a time of significant stress and personal transition.

Grand Valley hosts seven federal TRIO programs, serving students, beginning in middle school, and military veterans, offering services including tutoring and peer mentoring. Students deserve a well-constructed, well-supported path that anticipates and builds the right scaffolding based on their readiness, personal circumstances and needs.

As we struggle for the future of a generation, we of course must also hold ourselves accountable. Accountable for increasing quality online options, even without the precipitating crisis. It is appropriate that we structure conditions that reduce risk in the critical face-to-face experiences that allow students to thrive. It is right to assure the costs are not borne unfairly by parents, students, taxpayers and communities. It is reasonable to assure and insist our plans are well situated within community realities and health care capacity.

We must also offer sufficient choices to faculty, staff and students, whose personal situations and health conditions suggest remote learning is the best option for their well-being. However, along with these imperatives, it is also critical to hold educators accountable for including well-designed, public health-informed, low density face-to-face experiences in our portfolio of offerings and support faculty and staff energy and ingenuity to make it happen.

This is more than a response to student preference to be on college campuses; it is delivering on our mission to ensure equal access to college success and the exponential effects of generational transformation.

I have no idea whether we will win the fight to maintain our desired level of face-to-face learning this year as we battle this virus and put public health first. I am certain it’s worth it.


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