I am re-reading my post for 7 September 2020 in which I express my fears about returning to face-to-face teaching and I marvel at how little things have changed. I wrote then that I was in the grip of “Fear that the return to class next week means being infected with Covid-19, with who knows what consequences, and fear that I might infect those who live with me and endanger lives I love even more than mine”. I also wrote that I hoped those fears would soon be over and the return to normality a matter of six months. We are now eighteen months into the pandemic and although it seems that with 70% of the Spanish population already vaccinated matters have improved very much that is only part of the story.
We now know that doubly-vaccinated persons may still suffer from Covid-19, either in its mildest or in its most lethal form, and we are getting from the scientists worrying information about the serious waning of the vaccine protection only after four months. If this is true, we will go back to square one in December, two years–two years!–after the onset of the pandemic in Wuhan. There are rumours that British PM Boris Johnson has privately declared he is willing to accept a situation in which 50000 persons die of Covid-16 yearly in the UK. This sounded monstrous to me until I realized that we are already there and above, with more than 150 daily deaths in Spain’s fifth wave, close to 200 on some days. If a terrorist group massacred 150/200 Spaniards every day we would be angrily filling the streets. However, in this summer’s cruel normality, the streets have only been filled with people anxious to party as hard as possible. Many of them are young people soon to be in our classrooms.
University classrooms have not really been a focus of contagion even though many have been full beyond the 50% norm and very few teachers were already vaccinated when presential teaching partially re-started last Spring. The Spanish Government considered primary and secondary school teachers a priority, but told us to our face that since we were mostly teaching online vaccination was not urgent for us. I would agree in my own case, as I have indeed remained home teaching, but I must protest that the lives of many of my colleagues were unnecessarily endangered and that if the damage has remained low this has been just a case of sheer good luck. Most, if not all of us, were vaccinated between April and July, but please recall that vaccines are only 90-95% effective and that not all our students will have been vaccinated next week (nor some anti-vaxxer teachers). Besides, local news outlet Betevé explained last week that street parties are growing, since newly vaccinated young people who had refrained from attending them so far, do so now believing that they are safe. No one is safe because, please let’s remember this, the vaccines do not stop contagion, they only diminish the chances of Covid-19 being lethal.
All in all, then, I am bracing myself for a semester that will be, to say the least, complicated. Last year we taught in the flesh for about four weeks before being sent home. We were so optimistic back then that we even started teaching without masks (for the teachers, students had to wear them at all times). We teachers were soon masked, with all the discomfort this entails when you need to project your voice, but at least we were spared the cold winter of open windows that primary and secondary schools have heroically gone through. Not this time. My university regulations require that lectures are shortened by fifteen minutes so that classrooms can be ventilated, but (like last year) the authorities fail to explain where students will be in the meantime, making our crowded corridors again a risk. Classrooms will be filled to 70% capacity, which means that in classrooms for 100 students you will get 70 students, who will be unable to keep the minimum social distance (three feet or two meters, depending on the system you use). We all know from our experience last year that interaction with masked students seating at a considerable distance from teachers to maximize social distancing is a nightmare. At least, I simply could not understand my students’ muffled words. Then there is the matter of streaming if your university cannot find a classroom big enough for your group (in my university groups can be as big as 140 students). This year my university has decided that streaming classes for students who cannot physically be in the classroom is a free choice for teachers. Some may have been happy with the bimodal arrangement, but most teachers and students have concluded that one cannot teach well addressing both those in the classroom and those elsewhere.
Yes, what I am saying is that we are hurrying back to crowded buildings quite recklessly. This push back to classroom rather than online teaching is part of the same trigger-happy dynamic by which many companies are forcing employees back to the office, disregarding the danger and the discomfort. We seem to be operating internationally under the illusion that the pandemic is over, when in fact our hurry to put it in the past tense is prolonging it. No lessons have been learned at all, and we are just travelling, socializing and working as if things were normal. I am not saying that we need to be permanently trapped by the virus, and react hysterically to any bout; what I am saying is that I am appalled that the whole world is pretending that this is 2019, when it is 2021 and the virus is still on the rampage. We are taking for granted not only the death toll (under the wrong impression that only the very old are dying) but also the whole health system, whose workers must be hating every single one of us who ends up in hospital out of imprudence.
The impatience to go back to the classroom or the office has nothing to do, then, with the desirability of traditional models of teaching and working but with a general inability to have benefitted from the new ways brought in by the pandemic. I was truly convinced that the advantages of online learning and working would be appreciated and maintained beyond the end of the pandemic, but this has not happened. Parents of young children who had found a solution to the problem of how to conciliate family needs and working schedules are being deprived of that solution for reasons that are not clearly explained; surely, the cost for companies of keeping offices open is always higher than subsidizing the expenses of at home employees. As regards teaching, even though little is gained right now by gathering masses of students in classrooms to listen to lectures in which they need not participate, this is preferred to online teaching regulated by one’s own weekly schedule. Clearly, everyone hates online teaching and learning and this is an important factor but I will insist again and again that a major problem is that what we have been doing during the pandemic is not online teaching but using online resources to continue traditional teaching.
What is worrying me is that a situation in which teachers and students are afraid of returning to the classroom (I am very much afraid!) is not normal. I would not go to class if I had a gunman pointing at me every day, but I am asked to take health risks that are still pretty serious, vaccine or no vaccine. One need not be top virologist Margarita del Val to understand that by mid-October at the latest, we will have a sixth wave of contagions, now when we are still going through the tail-end of the fifth one. I do not understand the logic of this, particularly because the situation is not accompanied at all by clear legislation from the national Government and a better sense of responsibility from each citizen. When I read that people skip vaccine appointments and that many of the 30% still not vaccinated are anti-vaxxers, negationists, and plain covidiots I simply hate the human species.
In my own teaching practice I am going to keep going what I did online last year with my in-person teaching, that is to say, I will open online forums for discussion beyond the classroom, I will have students who do class presentations upload narrated PowerPoints to our virtual classroom for further discussion, and I will try to use my tutorial time for open online sessions, book-club style. I very much want face-to-face teaching to be less fundamental to my courses, so that students see that learning is not something that happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 to 10:00 but a continuous process that weaves in and out of our online and live meetings. I will, of course, try to make my presence in the classroom as productive as possible but, unlike what I have recently doing, I will stop checking attendance and will allow students more freedom to learn as they wish, as long as they follow the course. I intend, in short, classroom interaction to be a resource with the same importance as others online and not the very core of teaching. We’ll see if anything really changes.
Let me finish by sharing something else that worries me. I have not stepped into a classroom in the last 330 days, more or less, and I keep having these nightmares in which I see myself going back to teaching but being rejected by students. They don’t listen to me, or leave the classroom in the middle of my lectures… On the day I return to class I will have been a university teacher for thirty years, but that I have these nightmares says all I need to say about how vulnerable Covid-19 makes me feel. Should make us all feel.
Hopefully, by September next year this pandemic will have died out… only by then Barcelona might be gone, flooded by the effect of climate change as some apocalyptic media have warned. The future is, definitely, not what it used to be.
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