I doubt this post will reach many among its intended audience, but in case it helps anyone, I’ll try to offer some advice.
First, to set the stage. In this pandemic, nobody really knows what they are doing. Scientists have the best available insights, but they will be the first to admit that our situation has many unknowns that can change quickly in unknown ways – so it’s a day-by-day guess, even for the experts. The further away you get from a PhD in some science, the further away you get from even this much knowledge. Politicians are shooting from the hip, with one eye on their re-election campaign, and the other one on their re-election campaign.
Basically, the only thing we know for sure is that, in a pandemic, breathing on each other is bad.
Colleges can mitigate the degree to which students and professors and staff breathe on each other, but only so much – unless, of course, the classes go entirely online. Nevertheless, many colleges are offering mixed options, in which classes will meet partially face to face, and partially online. Why are they doing this?
Two main reasons. First, colleges need tuition dollars and many need to sell housing contracts. If everything goes online, students will seek cheaper online education venues, or not enroll at all. So, the promise of face-to-face classes brings in the money colleges need to stay afloat. Second, many students really need a face-to-face component to any class to stay motivated and engaged. College isn’t just downloading info. It’s a social experience, and social experiences require faces and spatial proximity, it turns out. Online education, for the most part, and with some narrow exceptions, stinks. The only people who claim otherwise are those seeking to earn money from it.
So what should you do? There may be some exceptional situations, to be discussed below, but my basic advice is this: take classes online this year if you are a good online learner, and otherwise take the year off.
Okay, there may be a narrow range of cases in which pursuing the face-to-face-but-sometimes-online option may be safe and workable. Not if you have any issues with your breathing or immune systems. Not if you are in any state where the governor’s policies are based on wishful thinking. Not if your college, in the emails they are sending you now, sounds more confident than anyone with a PhD has any right to be. But if, by happy chance, you are a robust young person, in that rare place where the disease is being met by enforced and effective social policies, and your college is sounding pretty severe and cautious about the whole thing, then it might make sense to go.
So think about these things: Am I free of health concerns? (NOTE: only a “no” answer to this question is significant. A “yes” answer is insignificant, since your health and seeming immortality provide no guarantee whatsoever that this disease cannot kick you down the stairs.) Are the state authorities responding intelligently to the pandemic? Is the college enacting serious restrictions? A “no” to any of these questions means you should wait a year.
But if your answer to all these questions is yes, one further consideration is whether online education works for you. If it just doesn’t – if you really need the face-to-face component to stay engaged and motivated – then delay for a year. For it is perfectly possible, and even likely, that classes next year will end up going entirely online, even if they are now being advertised as being face-to-face. So if you know now that online classes don’t work for you, it is smarter to press the “pause” button. I know, putting your college experience on hold for a year really sucks. But so does having to use a ventilator.
On the other hand, if you’re okay with learning online, but sort of want the possibility of some face-to-face (or, really, mask-to-mask) social interaction, and your governor and college administrators are all behaving like responsible agents, then going to college this fall might be okay. I hope.