A Return to Live Teaching Still Premature


University of Kentucky President Dr. Eli Capilouto got the high-profile treatment from the Washington Post last week which essentially makes him the poster boy for the premature return of in-person college learning this month.

Michigan President Dr. Mark Schlissel would have been a natural for that role for his decision to send Michigan folks back to campus on Jan. 5. But he is now the poster boy for fired university presidents who engaged in alleged affairs with subordinates.

He could use the isolation.Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

But then again, given the dramatic rise of COVID cases around the country, all of us could.

Only Capilouto seemed willing to go on record to advocate going back to school in the face of the pandemic’s most virulent Omicron spread. But Capilouto isn’t the only eager administrator to perhaps foolishly take COVID head on.

According to the Post, a majority of schools are heading back to in-person learning this month. Just 10-15 percent of the 500 schools tracked by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College are starting off with remote learning, with another 5 percent delaying return. That would appear to be the safe and prudent choice.

But it appears for most school administrators the phrase, “out of an abundance of caution” is no longer in fashion.

Do we really know enough about the current virus to make a smart decision on public health matters that’s beyond a semi-educated guess?

The fact is, we don’t. New York may have turned a corner this week announcing that daily infections dropped 40 percent. But as Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told the news media, the entire country is not moving at the same pace.

“We shouldn’t expect a national peak in the coming days,” Murthy said. “(The) next few weeks will be tough.”

It means the surge will only get worse. And Murthy’s not the only expert to predict a rise in cases going into February. When it comes to Omicron, everyone’s learning in real time. In the meantime, the numbers keep spiking, with the average daily infections nationwide now reaching 800,000.

 It just doesn’t seem wise to send students, faculty and staff back to campus quite yet. But don’t tell that to Capilouto. 

“We thought an in-person residential experience was something we could do safely,” Capilouto told the Post. “We had made a commitment to do so to these families and students. If I ever think there’s a day that we can’t do it safely, then we’ll turn in another direction.”

But wouldn’t that mean a pivot back to online learning? And what of student mental health when another jarring change occurs after being called back on campus to a COVID hot spot?

Capilouto, the eternal optimist, told the Post that 90 percent of students are vaccinated. True, but that’s with at least one vaccine, not two, and it’s even more unlikely that students have been boosted.

Still, while vaccinations are important, testing is even more so.

If Capilouto wants in-person learning to resume, it only makes sense if students, staff and faculty are all tested as they return. But testing isn’t required on return. Anyone want to attend live classes with a room full of virus? It’s Omicron Roulette.

While some anxious administrators may want to just get Omicron over with, no one really knows about the lingering impact of “long haul” COVID, and whether a “mild” case is truly mild. Why take a chance?

The Post article has many students and professors speaking out against Capilouto’s plan. The faculty I’ve communicated with say they are dispirited and alienated from the University, and don’t believe the administration cares about them. Many would rather teach online. But that clearly flies in the face of Capilouto’s eagerness to re-open.

In the last two years, we’ve seen presidents’ fortunes live and die by their COVID policies--from the White House to the Ivory Tower.

Capilouto may be trying to appear apolitical about forcing vaccines and masks in a red state like Kentucky.  But what about testing? An aggressive testing plan with updated protocols should be part of any return to live teaching.

In lieu of that, we should all be questioning any school’s willingness to open up too soon before much more is known about Omicron.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist, commentator, and a former adjunct professor. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok