Despite increased on-campus COVID cases and nagging concerns of a slow and unpredictable vaccine rollout, many professors have been itching to get back into the classroom.
Taking students’ support and gratitude for in-person learning last semester as motivation to return to campus, many have felt more empowered to teach in physical classrooms, citing fall success and clear benefits.
“I just realized last semester how much the students were really missing the in-person contact,” explained Prof. E. Lauren Chambliss, communications. “From the very first class [this time around], every single student joined in the conversation.”
Prof. John Blume, law, who is teaching two hybrid courses this semester — one for undergraduate students and the other for law students — also felt inspired by student support for in-person learning.
“[Students] want to thank you for letting them go back to the classroom and have an in-person experience, so I think that’s been good and rewarding,” Blume said.
After spending most of 2020 behind their computer screens, many professors said they felt more comfortable and safer returning to teach in person.
“I was really heartened by my colleagues who were brave enough to give [in-person instruction] a try in the fall,” explained Chambliss. “When I talked to them, they just [said] they never felt unsafe and the students all seemed to appreciate being there.”
Between Cornell’s robust testing program and the total absence of classroom transmission cases in the fall, the benefit seemed to outweigh the risk.
“I would have taught in person last semester, actually. I did not have a concern,” said Prof. Drew Margolin, communications. “It’s about Cornell having a good plan, which I think they had. They’re testing people all the time, I don’t know how much more you can do than that.”
Professors who agreed last semester to teach in-person this semester did so prior to New York State adding in-person college professors to phase 1b of vaccine distribution on Jan. 11. Now, though, they’re starting to be vaccinated.
Chambliss, who already received her first dose of the vaccine, said she was grateful to state health officials, who made the decision to expand the eligibility requirements: “It was an enormous bonus to teaching in person that I didn’t really expect.”
Still, like much of the last year, vaccine distribution has not gone according to plan for some professors — many faced hiccups like far-off appointment slots and technological problems while booking. Margolin, who recently received an appointment in Syracuse next month for his first shot, found rollout to be chaotic.
“While these issues are coming from the state and federal level, it’s still not efficient or equitable,” he explained. “If you’re really savvy about online interfaces, then this is great for you, but it’s really not the equitable way.” Others nationwide have cited access issues about needing an email address, for example, to get a vaccination appointment.
While the obstacles to online teaching last semester have made professors eager to get back to in-person classes, teaching in-person and hybrid courses has introduced a different set of concerns.
“Under my mask I’m making facial expressions, but I don’t know what [students] see,” explained Margolin. “I haven’t quite figured out how to emote and get the students to loosen up. It feels very stiff. I’m trying to figure out a way to make it more familiar without seeing each other.”
Other concerns include students who rely on lip-reading to understand material and the general challenges to working in small groups while distanced.
Blume, who is teaching a hybrid class of 120 students, only some of whom are in person, has found new ways to actively involve everyone in class discussions, even if they aren’t in the classroom, using virtual tools.
“I don’t want to feel as if they’re getting a lesser experience than the students that are in person,” he explained. “I’ve used more polling and questionnaires. … I think I’ll continue to do that even if things return to whatever they return to next semester.”
Chambliss said she plans to incorporate more Canvas discussions into her classes: “If we do some of it online first, and then we digest it even further in the classroom, we get to go one step deeper.”
Despite these challenges of only visible tops of faces and technical difficulties to be heard over Zoom, many professors are excited to just see their students in person again.