capcity

Courseloads, College Classrooms, and COVID Fatigue

Like many of us in post-secondary education, I went back to work in earnest last week. Oh, sure I had done some course prep, timed out my drives, shared my Google Calendar with loved ones—but this was the true return: on to campuses and into classrooms. This is, typically, my favorite time of year. The December/January break is pleasant enough, filled with yuletide and debt, but come the second week of January I begin to miss the joy of teaching, the eagerness of students, the magic of college—a truly special place. I believe the classroom is where social movements are born, where the cultural zeitgeist is defined, where singular and inestimable skill sets are developed. They’re where we make difficult transitions, where we refine our ambitions, and where we have the opportunity to not just imagine possibilities, but realize them. College classrooms are where the free exchange of ideas is not just encouraged, but demanded. It is a responsibility I approach with honesty, humor, and passion. As the late bell hooks wrote, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” There’s no place in the world I’d rather be than a classroom.

And I don’t want to be there right now.

COVID has affected us all—a more true and trite statement perhaps has not been written. I’m quite fortunate in that I did not lose many courses as a number of my colleagues did as the pandemic and its politicization spread like, well, like a virus. My transition to remote teaching was challenged by rural broadband speeds and a few other obstacles, but my students—mostly ages 17 to 25—seemed to revel and strive in the adoption of zooming. Seems a generation who has grown up on smartphones and FaceTime found the shift a lateral move, hardly challenged at all except for the complication of learning from their dorm room beds or parents’ basements. And as we’ve moved back into the classroom, most students at some of the campuses I teach on have shared the responsibility of community safety with me: they mask well, they test often, they know when to stay home. They’re good kids, and they don’t get enough credit for bearing the brunt of the virus’ effect on their learning.

No, my issue right now, that which feeds my fears of returning to the classroom, is born of so-called adults. 

Adults have made an unholy mess of the pandemic. If we had entrusted COVID policy to students, I imagine we may all be enjoying classrooms maskless by now. But, instead, the adults of administration have made misstep after misstep throughout the two-plus years of COVID, perpetuating not just the virus itself, but its effect on colleges. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “total undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1 percent from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, bringing the total decline since the fall of 2019 to 6.6 percent — or 1,205,600 students.” Community colleges, where those most affected by the virus (marginalized communities) are “disproportionately hurt. Tens of thousands of students, many of them low-income, were forced to delay school or drop out because of the pandemic and the economic crisis it has created. The new data showed that enrollment in community colleges was down 13.2 percent, or 706,000 students, compared with 2019.” 

The reasons for the drop in enrolment, I believe, are directly tied not to new economic challenges (as many college administrations will contend) but rather for the same reason I’m wary of returning to campus: many of us don’t feel safe at our colleges. I certainly don’t. Anecdotal evidence and conversations with colleagues reveal that online courses are at or near capacity throughout systems, suggesting that students want to enroll and learn, but are unwilling to put their lives at risk to do so. In Canada, enrollment numbers have remained steady, and I would posit (as a proud ex-pat) that my homeland’s stricter policies and attention to (universal) public health have contributed to the absence of the falling enrolment numbers we see in the US.

I am not extended the option of moving online. It is required that I maintain my assigned modalities, except in specific cases.

The scattershot COVID policies of college administrations have confused and imperiled students, faculty, and staff since the onset of the pandemic. But in March of 2020, we could excuse some of those failings as the challenge of a generationally singular event—though such consideration was rarely extended to those of us who transitioned to online classes in the blink of an eye. The failures and wilful ignorance since are simply unacceptable.

In Connecticut, where I teach at a community college, the lackluster policies have been tethered to the administration and Board of Regents’ disdain for faculty, students, and staff, as we enter our seventh month of collective bargaining and are working without a contract. The 4Cs and its sister unions have been imploring the state to enact stricter policies, but the BOR, Governor Lamont, and college administrators are uninterested. At my school, medical exemptions were given out without question, and the school relied on self-attestation of vaccination status with no proof. I have often walked into classrooms with closed doors and windows, stagnating airflow. Students do not have access to N95 or KN95 masks. The classrooms are unsafe. 

The administration does not engage with the community as we do. They sit behind the safety of their ivory cubicles and corner offices, ignorant of the mental toll of the pandemic’s trenches. A recent missive from a Connecticut community college CEO (a title in and of itself that speaks volumes to the state’s vision for community colleges) suggested that COVID was in its waning days and that it was our duty as faculty to make students feel safe on campus. 

Overall, we are inspired by our increasing in-person communications with each other. These interactions are much more engaging than online and virtual connections. Please make every effort to spend time on our campus. If you have conflicting meetings, please feel free to participate in those meetings from your office and partake in on-campus meetings when you are able. I ask that you hold faculty office hours on campus and inform Academic Affairs whether they will be virtual and/or on campus. We need to encourage our students to come to campus and engage with each other.

Besides engaging in anecdotal subjectivity (connection has no metric) asking that we meet with our students in person in small spaces, without assurances that everyone is vaccinated (let alone boostered) is disappointing. It’s frightening. It’s sad. And it’s indicative of college administrations throughout the community and country. 

How do I make my students feel safe on campus if I don’t feel safe? I pride myself on open and honest communication with my students. I don’t lie to them. I won’t.

I am contingent faculty, often referred to as part-time or adjunct, though there is nothing part-time about my work. This virus has adversely affected my peers like no other in the post-secondary community. Seventy-five of the teaching faculty at Connecticut community colleges are part-time employees and earn less than $6,000 for a 3-credit course for the semester. They receive no health insurance from the system—we are not afforded nor can we afford healthcare. We do not have access to sick days. We don’t have vacation days with which to take care of our families or our children should they get sick or their schools’ shut down. In most cases, if our families are infected by COVID we are doomed to financial ruin. Our communities are put in danger by the absence of a sustained and responsible COVID policy which the BOR and the state of Connecticut have refused to provide. 

Time and again we have proposed policies that would ensure a safe learning and working environment:

  • Require proof of vaccination and booster for all faculty, staff, and students except for those with a valid exemption
  • Distribute N95 masks to students and employees at the colleges
  • Ensure increased social distancing is enforced on all CSCU property including the classrooms
  • Provide common-sense telework accommodations and rotating shifts for staff during COVID situations
  • Allow faculty the option to move classes online the first two weeks of the semester while COVID spikes are straining our hospitals and healthcare systems

All reasonable requests that would make our community safer, and commit to ending the pandemic beyond our campuses. We have been met with either indifference or vitriol. 

But, the calculus of this virus’ impact is not as simple as negative or positive, life or death—the mental health toll of continuing to work in a toxically ill-prepared environment is unquantifiable. I am tired of not being able to see my students’ faces. I am tired of management’s lack of care. I am tired of building multiple courses for multiple contingencies without any support. I am tired of seeing student after student fall ill. I am tired of being tired. 

I want to teach. I love teaching. And the weight of it this semester is hurting me. For the first time in my teaching life, I’m wondering how much of it I have left in me.

The views expressed in this op-ed reflect those of the author and not necessarily the 4Cs and/or its membership.

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