OPINION: Many clamoring for in-person classes never set foot on a campus

A Kennesaw State University professor writes, "The University System of Georgia found that students' performance through virtual learning was on par with in-person courses." (Gabriela Campos/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP, File)
A Kennesaw State University professor writes, "The University System of Georgia found that students' performance through virtual learning was on par with in-person courses." (Gabriela Campos/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP, File)

Credit: Gabriela Campos

Credit: Gabriela Campos

A Kennesaw State University professor says most faculty remain concerned with COVID-19 risks

A guest column earlier this week by a University of Georgia design professor on the benefits of in-person classes to his mental health and that of his students generated a lot of discussion.

A professor in the UGA College of Environment+Design, Amitabh Verma said his studio class could accommodate social distancing. Not all university classes could, he said.

Verma wrote:

During a crisis (or any time, actually), social support is an invaluable coping mechanism, and that is what I hoped my classes would provide. I am pleased to say that they have. Several students have told me that they feel more motivated, more in control, and less stressed in in-person classes. There is also an unexpected pandemic-related benefit – the buildup of trust has led to students feeling comfortable about opening up, and they exchange stories and tips about coping in quarantine, what recovery is like, how long before the sense of smell returns. The studios have become de facto support groups, helping to dissipate some of the uncertainty and fear of the ongoing situation. The physical togetherness has become motivational, the studio a place of affirmative and healing social interaction.

- AJC Get Schooled blog, Nov. 9, 2020

Many parents praised the column because they believe their college students learn more in face-to-face classes and feel more connected to their campuses. However, the essay also raised concerns among faculty around the state, who point to the rising rates of COVID-19 and the risks to them and their families from in-person classes. (On Thursday, the United States recorded 160,000 new cases of COVID-19.)

In an essay today, a longtime Kennesaw State University professor explains his concerns. Timothy Hedeen, a professor of conflict management, says these views are his own, and not those of KSU.

By Timothy Hedeen

A recent AJC Get Schooled Blog entry by a professional colleague reflects on the mental health benefits of his studio-based courses this semester. I’m glad to read of those, yet I’m concerned that readers might mistake his views as representative of faculty, staff, and students broadly; to put it simply, they are not.

Across Georgia and beyond, every in-person class meeting increases the risk of COVID transmission. The risks aren’t contained to the classroom: students and faculty carry that risk into their dorms and homes, to their roommates, families, and communities. Consider, too, that custodial staff colleagues who maintain those classrooms, bus drivers who transport those students, dining facilities employees who serve those campuses—they are all exposed to additional risk because of in-person classes.

Campuses have proved to be hotspots for coronavirus transmission. Public health guidance is clear: the more time spent in groups in enclosed spaces, the more likely any individual may contract the virus. Even with robust testing and tracing (neither of which are available at many campuses), masks and partitions, staggered transition times and one-way hallways, in-person classes are ill-advised. They represent unnecessary risk of unpredictable harm, and for no apparent benefit: the University System of Georgia found that students' performance through virtual learning was on par with in-person courses.

Students know this as well as staff and faculty members do, and no one wishes to expose others to unnecessary risk. So, why is it that Georgia’s public colleges and universities are being asked to have even more in-person classes in the spring? Perhaps because those who are clamoring for in-person courses don’t actually set foot on campus.

Dr. Timothy Hedeen of Kennesaw State University
Dr. Timothy Hedeen of Kennesaw State University

If they were to step on campus, what might they find? They’d find low student attendance at in-person classes, and high student preference for virtual ones. They’d find few staff and faculty who feel safe and supported, and many who are fearful for their health and well-being. In short, they’d find that everyone who lives and works on campuses understands that learning can’t happen when one is distracted by fears of being harmed or harming others.

Any honest conversation about the relative merits of in-person classes would recognize that students and faculty look forward to the return to classrooms, but only when it’s safe to do so. While virtual learning may not realize all the benefits of in-person instruction, it’s the most appropriate course of action for the foreseeable future.

A last note about Professor Verma’s emphasis on mental health: I’ve worked on campuses for more than 25 years, and this pandemic has brought far more anguish to my students and colleagues than anything I can recall. I certainly hope we’ll prioritize the health of students and campus employees over the wishful, magical thinking of those who seem so willing to put them in harm’s way.

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