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Generals die in bed: Exploring the issue of who’s taking the risks in reopening

When it comes to reopening in the fall, it can be easy to ask people to risk their lives if those making the decisions don’t face the same risk.

Southwest Minnesota State University website
An image touting the fall return to classes from the Southwest Minnesota State University website.
smsu.edu

Years ago, I performed a timid act of civil disobedience in my English composition course at Fullerton Community College. I arrived early, and on the empty blackboard at the front of the class, I drew a massive peace sign and then took my seat. The professor, an aging and taciturn man (probably my age now), looked quietly at the peace sign, erased it and wrote in large letters, “Generals die in bed.”

Having appropriately edited my work, he began his lesson. I have never forgotten that message: It is easy to ask people to risk their lives if the person giving the orders does not face the same risk.

Last week, at a meeting of our business resumption team, our human resources staff reminded everyone attending that we, as faculty members, are essential workers. I understood that to mean that we can be required to work in face-to-face settings unless we can demonstrate a medical reason for working remotely. So far, in our planning for the fall, my institution is seeking to maximize face-to-face instruction in a HyFlex model. Smartly, there is a focus on maintaining synchronous instruction, even for courses that will use a significant online component in their HyFlex delivery.

Everyone prefers face-to-face classes. But …

Of course, every faculty member I know wants to return to face-to-face instruction. So, too, do our students. Even the best-designed online experience cannot compare to a well-designed and -executed face-to-face class. And so much of college takes place outside the classroom — informally between individual students, in clubs and organizations, volunteering in community, visiting with faculty members during office hours, conducting laboratory or archival research, and so much more.

But because of COVID-19, fall 2020 will not be normal. How we proceed should not focus on what we want. It should focus on what is best for public health.

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Fall 2020 is different for one more reason. Students have signed up for most of their classes as if they will be taught live, face-to-face. That will allow for the best kind of online teaching, where, with technology, we can meet live, synchronously, in real time. Institutions should continue to guide students into classes with specific days and times during this pandemic so we can continue to run synchronous classes even if they ultimately must move online.

The choices facing essential workers everywhere have been excruciating for months now. Workers in meatpacking plants, nursing homes, hospitals, grocery stores, firehouses, police stations, gas stations, liquor stores and dozens of other occupations have faced the virus, and many have died. Now, beginning in the fall, educators will face this dilemma. We will be asked to work, day after day, in highly contagious spaces or quit our jobs without unemployment benefits.

What concerns me is that many of those empowered to order us to face the COVID-19 virus are like the generals who die in bed. They will not be entering classrooms several times a week. They will be safe, physically distancing in offices or even working remotely from home — far from dangerous sites of infection that threaten faculty members, students, front-line staff members and families back home.

High-risk locations

Everybody knows that colleges and universities are high-risk locations for infection. Almost certainly, even a physically distanced classroom will become a petri dish of infection after 30 minutes of 25 people breathing the same air. After weeks of discussion, my campus recently announced that it will require people to wear masks in the fall. Both the system our institution belongs to and the Minnesota Department of Health refuse to require masks in college settings, kicking these decisions down to the campus level. Is face-to-face instruction without masks safe for students? For institutions?

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick
In just a matter of months, more than 120,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Hundreds more are dying each day. And this harvest of human life continues despite the massive disruptions in everyday life, including the shutdown of face-to-face instruction from K-12 through higher education institutions. Imagine how the virus would have spread had we not taken these unprecedented actions.

Now we are opening up and seriously discussing returning to face-to-face instruction at all levels of education in the fall. What will be the consequences of opening institutions after a summer of backing off on physical distancing?

Essential workers in meatpacking plants are forced to risk their lives on the killing floor or go without a paycheck. Meatpacking cannot be done online. I get that. A fair solution for meatpackers, or other workers whose jobs cannot be done remotely, would be to extend unemployment insurance to those workers unwilling to enter the workplace while increasing wages sufficiently to fill the plant with people willing to take the risk.

Unlike cutting up meat, education can happen effectively online during this pandemic. Online is not perfect, and in some cases, it is significantly inferior (in certain laboratory, clinical or performance courses, for example). But until we really understand the public health consequences of opening up, we must be careful.

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When reopening makes sense

Once the threat to public health is reasonable and the virus better understood, once high-quality PPE is abundant for health-care workers and stockpiled at colleges and universities, once institutions have the capacity and money to test, contact trace and isolate — in short, once the risk becomes manageable — reopening makes sense.

Before those conditions are met, coercing or pressuring faculty members with their status as essential workers is troubling. And if I am feeling the pressure as a straight white male tenured full professor, imagine how faculty from marginalized populations, and/or those on contingent appointments feel.

From a public health perspective, does it make sense to reopen K-12 and higher education at the same time, or is it unwise? Does it make sense to reopen campuses completely, or only for certain labs and other key courses where face-to-face instruction is crucial?

How would planning for the fall change if chancellors, presidents, provosts, chief financial officers, chief human resource officers, academic officers and others had to work regularly in the middle of a physically distanced classrooms for 12 to 20 hours a week? Would their ideas about “recommending” or requiring masks change? Would they still require a doctor’s note to allow instructors to work online? Would they reconsider opening for the fall?

All those years ago, my composition professor explained to me that war is terrible because generals die in bed. There is something rotten in the way we are planning for the resumption of teaching and learning in the fall.

Jeff Kolnick is professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University. He is a founder of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy and has served his faculty union as a negotiator and local president. The views in this essay are his own.

This commentary was originally published by Inside Higher Ed.