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The Other Side of the College Reopening Story

COVID-19 knocked us over. Education reminds us how to stand back up.
August 29, 2020
The Other Side of the College Reopening Story
A lower school substitute teacher talks to a collegue (laptop), a 7th grade teacher and co-chair of the lower school, from her home due to the Coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. - Her role in the school changed significantly when Coronavirus hit. She was previously working part time to support teachers when they needed to be absent from the classroom and now she helps them to build skills with new digital platforms so they can continue to teach in the best way for their students and their families.The middle school (grades 6-8) has most regularly been using Zoom and the lower grades have been using Zoom with parents. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

One of my students captured the mood of many returning to our COVID-19-masked and socially-distanced residential college at this historic moment when she wrote, “I am scared of returning to school. . . . I am scared of the unknowns and the emptiness and the distance. Of sterility replacing warmth. Of building a new home on a campus where vestiges of the home I had already built are strewn everywhere, none of them salvageable, due to the virus.”

In the same piece, however, she vowed that she and her fellow students will not be “afraid of fear.”

“Right now, every part of me wants a storm I can stand before. Wants a wind that will knock me over, just so I can remember how to stand back up,” she wrote.

Her inspiring words reminded me of both the possibilities and challenges that will unfold this semester because of—and despite—what one of my students described as “the dark and dangerous times” in which we will teach and learn. Many of my fellow faculty members and I may be buffeted by the storm and, yes, possibly even knocked down when we return to teaching. But we will remember how to stand back up.

Confronting such crises are a familiar part of the cycle for an academic like me who has been teaching for a while (in my case, since the 1970s). From Vietnam to Watergate, from the aftermath of 9/11 to the War in Iraq, from the 2008 financial collapse to the current pandemic, colleges and college teachers have regularly had to find ways to get on with the business of teaching during difficult times.

In such moments of extreme instability, teachers have had to find the right balance of helping our students understand the crisis of the moment while also keeping the world at least a little at bay, so that education can go on. Only this time, in our strange COVID-19-transformed world, many of us will have to do so with students seen only in the framed boxes of our Zoom classrooms.

Classes at my own institution started on Monday, August 24 and students I have talked with over the last several days were very much aware of those conditions. They were also overwhelmingly grateful to be returning to campus. The student who described these days as dark and dangerous also made a point of expressing to me his desire to take on the work of being on a campus during a time of national crisis.

Of course, the perspectives of such thoughtful students have been drowned out by overheated media coverage of students behaving badly at colleges and universities across the country.

News stories have focused almost exclusively on their failure to abide by COVID-inspired restrictions on social gatherings. A video of several hundred students at the University of North Georgia flouting those rules quickly went viral. It was taken as proof of the folly of bringing students who care most about their social lives back to campus.

A recent article in The New York Times about what is going on in residence halls at Cornell University quoted a dorm supervisor describing the behavior of undergraduates as “constant insanity and madness.”

These stories miss the fact that the majority of returning college students are, and will be, abiding by the rules that their colleges impose as a condition of their reopening. Most of those students will do so because they are eager to learn and return to the classroom.

When my college began the carefully orchestrated process of helping students move into their residential halls, I felt my own usual sense of excitement about greeting new arrivals and helping carry their belongings to their rooms. Unfortunately, given the dangers this year, I had to make a promise to myself that I would stay away, grudgingly acknowledging my status during our pandemic as an at-risk 72-year-old man.

My promise didn’t hold for very long. On the first day, I put on my mask, packed up my fear of COVID-19 and went to campus to welcome a few students back. And then I went back the next day to see a few more, and the next. And the next.

Students and their loved ones will need to be patient and have faith that what we do in the classroom during the pandemic will help them realize their personal aspirations if we are going to be able to mentor and prepare the next generation of engaged citizens. Theirs is a generation that must be readied to repair a world seemingly beyond redemption—a world struggling with not just COVID-19 but also racial and political unrest, violence, unemployment and so much more.

I know fear will be my unwelcome co-teacher this semester. Fear will share my classroom (well, Zoom screen) as I discuss the readings I assign students in my seminar Secrets and Lies, a course I have offered many times in my 40+ year career. I also know my fear will be kept at bay the way it has always been: by teaching.

In times of crisis and calm, teaching is more than an act of hope. It is a commitment to a better future. An unfolding and unknown one—but a better one just the same.

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is associate provost and associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is the author of The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment.