Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Here’s one measure of the uncertainty engulfing Bay Area universities as they contemplate how to resume instruction in the fall: Stanford might pitch tents and move some classes outdoors.
That’s one scenario the school’s provost, Persis Drell, acknowledged during an online conversation last week with the campus community. As she put it in conveying Stanford’s approach during the coronavirus pandemic, “Absolutely nothing is off the table.”
This includes wandering outside to teach. Stanford’s sprawling campus, medium-size student body and temperate climate make outdoor classes a realistic consideration.
“We are actually discussing whether tents might be a possibility for instruction in the fall,” Drell said, “to take advantage of the weather and the fact that being outside is actually quite beneficial in terms of stopping the spread of the disease.”
Stanford and other Bay Area colleges — after moving classes online in mid-March and committing to that model through the summer — now find themselves in deep conversations about the fall, with a mix of in-person and online instruction emerging as the most likely option. Drell, in a Faculty Senate meeting last month, also mentioned possibly starting the academic year in winter quarter (and skipping fall quarter).
Stanford expects to make a decision sometime in June, according to school spokesman E.J. Miranda. The first day of fall classes is scheduled for Sept. 21.
Most local schools are on the semester system and will begin classes in mid-August, barely more than three months from now. So the urgency to develop plans is growing, even with the fallout from the crisis constantly evolving.
Robb Willer, a Stanford professor of sociology, pyschology and organizational behavior, suggested he and other faculty members are amenable to creative ways to keep the university running smoothly.
“I think it's important that plans for resuming in-person instruction accommodate more risk-averse faculty and students who may wish to ‘opt out’ and continue distance learning,” Willer wrote in an email Thursday. “Obviously, this is easier said than done. Outdoor instruction, for example, would somehow have a Zoom option, and some classes would continue online.”
St. Mary’s struck the most optimistic tone in peering toward the fall semester. School president James A. Donahue posted a letter to the campus community recently in which he stated SMC is “planning to welcome students back to campus and conduct in-person courses this fall.”
Donahue cushioned his declaration by noting St. Mary’s will follow the best public health practices and local, state and federal regulations. So even the most well-intentioned plans could change, in other words.
Still, the school’s average class size of 20 students gives school officials hope of bringing students back to campus.
“As a university with small class sizes that facilitate innovative approaches,” Donahue wrote, “we will be able to develop appropriate models for modifying the learning environment that adhere to social distancing guidelines.”
At least one St. Mary’s faculty member, mathematics professor Jim Sauerberg, would welcome a return to classroom instruction, if feasible. This spring’s abrupt move to online classes, not especially popular among college students, also magnified the challenges for professors.
“Everybody hopes to be in person,” Sauerberg said. “One of the interesting things for me as a faculty member is, we’ve heard for years about the coming online revolution and how much better online education would be. And old dinosaurs who wanted face-to-face instruction are stuck in the mud.
“The sudden shift was not ideal, because it was done quickly, but it showed the shortcomings of online education. Even in a subject like mine, learning is really about communication, and communication works best when it’s one-on-one. I can see your face and gauge your understanding of what’s happening, and you can see my face and my reaction to what you’re saying.
“So while we’ll teach online in the fall if worst comes to worst, it’s not the ideal education.”
Schools also must tackle the complicated challenge of reopening campus housing before they can resume in-person classes. This will require programs for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, and also for isolating students who test positive for the virus.
That probably will lead to “less dense housing configurations” at St. Mary’s, according to Donahue, and the possibility of students who live in the area commuting from home.
Here’s what other local colleges are saying about their fall plans:
UC Berkeley: Chancellor Carol Christ expects the school to adopt a hybrid plan, with some classes in person and others online. Campus officials will make a final decision by mid-June, she said this week, and the school intends to have “a semester in the cloud for students who cannot come to campus.”
Christ reiterated that Berkeley, like other UC campuses (and most colleges nationwide), is not considering tuition refunds even if instruction remains online. The estimated budget impact on the school resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is about $200 million, according to an email Christ sent last month to faculty and staff.
San Jose State: Provost Vincent Del Casino, in an interview last month with The Chronicle, said, “We’re really looking right now to get as much of our catalog as possible in an online format.” Del Casino wants to maintain “maximum flexibility,” he said in an April 30 email to students, if physical distancing requirements limit face-to-face instruction.
Del Casino, in The Chronicle’s interview, indicated San Jose State also is considering using “outdoor space” for some classes.
San Francisco State: School president Lynn Mahoney, in an April 27 post, acknowledged physical distancing “may require continuing much of our instruction remotely.” She added, “We recognize that some learning is best done in person, and we are working hard to make it possible for experiential learning to take place in the fall.”
USF: School president Paul J. Fitzgerald hopes to begin the fall semester “with as much in-person instruction … as is safely possible.” Fitzgerald, in a May 4 message, also cautioned of the “need to include a robust infrastructure for testing, tracing and isolation for all USF campuses and activities.”
• Cal State East Bay, Sonoma State and Santa Clara also responded to The Chronicle’s inquiries about their fall-term plans. All three schools are weighing their options but have not yet made a decision.