COVID Learning Options for the Fall: Just a Few, Simple, Possible Scenarios

After reading and hearing about possibilities for the fall semester, both in the higher ed and K-12 worlds, I think I finally have a grasp on the scenarios I and my students might face in the coming months. As I understand it, in order to be competent and caring instructors, all we need to do is develop syllabi for each of the following possible futures:

  1. Everyone is back on campus, likely wearing masks, but otherwise things are “back to normal,” with face-to-face classes.
  2. Similar to #1, but there is still a cap on large gatherings, so big courses may need special adjustments.
  3. Health guidance doesn’t allow students to return to campus, so everything is online again, as it was in Spring 2020.
  4. All classes are broadcast online, so that some students are in class on campus, but other students can watch online if they choose not to come to campus.
  5. There’s a COVID outbreak in the late fall, so we start a week early and end at Thanksgiving.
  6. There’s a COVID outbreak in the early fall, so we start late and end just before the New Year’s Day ball drops in Times Square.
  7. There’s a COVID outbreak in the middle of the fall, so we push back the fall semester into the spring, and the spring semester into the summer.
  8. We decrease residency on campus by bringing smaller numbers of students to campus in waves, while others learn at a distance.
  9. Same as #8, but an advanced machine learning algorithm uses contact tracing data to determine which students and faculty are most at risk and moves them back and forth between online and face-to-face sections across the course of the semester; pretty cool.
  10. Same as #9, but the machine learning algorithm achieves true artificial intelligence and tries to take over the world; learning must continue while trying to avoid its killer deathbots [not cool].
  11. Bring only first-year students on campus; everyone else learns from a distance.
  12. Bring only the seniors to campus so they can enjoy their final year; hope scientists invent a vaccine for senioritis, too.
  13. Online instruction for the first half of the semester, but around Fall Break a skateboarding teenager travels back in time and stops the COVID outbreak from ever happening in the first place (and, after a scare, ensures his parents still fall in love); instruction continues face-to-face after that.
  14. Same as #13, but the teenager carelessly leaves a sports almanac in the past, enabling an unscrupulous bully to attain vast financial power through gambling; ensure equity of instructional access despite severe economic disparities among students.
  15. A COVID outbreak occurs in the tech industry and the Internet shuts down; stock up on paper, papyrus, stamps, envelopes, and maybe homing pigeons so distance learning can continue.
  16. Naturally enforce social distancing by having all classes meet between 3 and 6 am; only the most dedicated students (and faculty) will show up.
  17. Daycares and K-12 remain shut down but higher ed can open; prepare face-to-face lectures so they are equally engaging for toddlers, teenagers, traditional-aged college students, and non-traditional learners.
  18. Same as #17, but higher ed remains online only too; let the kids use their Tik Tok prowess to spice up the Zoom lectures with group dances to music “from the 70s to now!”
  19. Same as #9 and #18, but the artificial intelligence takes over Zoom; conduct course lectures in a new language the instructor invents so the AI can’t decipher it and gain new knowledge.
  20. Consolidate some learning in large online lectures, but then have students meet one-on-one with faculty, like an honors tutorial; to compensate for their extreme fatigue, the university will install permanent caffeine IV drips in faculty members’ arms.
  21. Hold classes in virtual reality; is Second Life still around? Or can we adapt Minecraft or Fortnite for that?
  22. Same as #21, but include a fun optional sidequest where students can use their nerd knowledge to discover the location of three keys and three gates that lead to an Easter egg hidden deep in the virtual world.
  23. COVID triggers a total meltdown of the world sociopolitical order, leading to poverty, anarchy, riots, famine, and worldwide nuclear war. As humanity enters a Dark Age that might last for millennia, be sure students know how to contact the professor, how to use the course management software, and how they can demonstrate measurable achievement of learning outcomes, even if both instructors and students are hiding deep in underground bunkers.
  24. Same as #23, but an authoritarian regime arises and starts forcing young adults into arena battles to the death. Consider how students who are reaped for the games can nevertheless experience equal access to high-quality active learning experiences that meet accreditation standards.
  25. “HighAdapt” option that blends any of #1-#24; if the university had to switch fluidly between any of these options with little advance notice, what would we do? How would we enact flexibility while still achieving course learning outcomes? Of course, the important thing is to have a plan that covers all possible scenarios; we need to assume responsibility for student learning, because why would we ask them to be responsible for it? That would go against everything that college should be about.

Finally, I also note that this extra planning requires just a bit more work from faculty, and so those without tenure may have to put research and creative activity on hold for awhile. That’s OK; because if faculty can’t get to their scholarship, the university is more than happy to push back the tenure clock by a year or two. In exchange for the professor’s extra teaching labor, certainly the university can delay the opportunity for financial reward, professional growth, and career stability; that’s really the only fair thing to do.