Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

If Students Don’t Have Internet, If Students Don’t Wear a Mask…

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Two things inspired this post, and I want to invite folks to engage with both of these questions with a lens of equity and care.

First, while working on a survey at my institution, a colleague said, “why should we ask about internet connectivity issues, it’s not the instructor’s fault”. And I said, “the poor connectivity is not the instructor’s fault, but finding a way to ensure every student is learning even if they have poor connectivity IS the instructor’s responsibility”. My colleague asked, “but will instructors realize they were meant to do that?” And I said, “every document I’ve written or workshop I’ve given since the pandemic started emphasizes the importance of this. Maybe some faculty don’t read or listen. But hey. Look. Think of it from the student perspective. Doesn’t every student have the RIGHT to expect this from their faculty? And if someone doesn’t know how to do it, we can help them think through it. And we have been.”

Just to reiterate: a student’s inability to access your class materials or sessions is your responsibility as a teacher and if you don’t know how to manage this, ask your institution for help. There is an immediate ameliorative response which is to provide alternatives or ensure low bandwidth opportunities.. and then there is a systemic solution at the institution level of providing students with better devices/connectivity. And then at the country level of ensuring equitable distribution of underlying infrastructure and offering reasonably priced internet packages.

Second issue related to a Twitter thread on masks. The person wrote that her institution suggested that when classes are in person in the fall, if a student isn’t wearing a mask, to cancel class. One response was: that isn’t fair to other students who came. Others said: kick that student out. Others were just thankful the institution didn’t ask her to call security or police(?!?!?). My immediate response was, the institution should provide a way to buy masks at a reasonable price. Why are we assuming the student does not have a good reason for not wearing a mask – e.g. the elastic broke earlier? I understand the concerns about students who refuse to wear masks for other reasons (perhaps they should not be allowed into campus without one?). But the immediate reaction of not trying to remedy the situation was annoying for me.

Not all faculty or students are equally vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19. Many healthy individuals live with others who are elderly, diabetic, with heart disease, or even more immune compromised than that. No student or faculty member or worker should be forced to work in a close-range f2f environment. Until we can be reasonably safe.

Remember, also, that some of the things we valorize about face to face such as seeing facial expressions won’t be possible any time soon. We won’t be face to face. We will be mask to mask, and our f2f opportunities will be on Zoom and such!! We won’t be able to sit close to each other to do group work. Zoom breakout rooms might be better for that. Or Google docs with comments.

I fear that all kinds of plans to “return somewhat” will be full of inequalities and unnecessary stress for working moms. If a mom is a teacher and has 2 kids and each of them gets 2 days to be at school but they’re not the same 2 days, what happens to child care? How do you sort out these logistics? You can’t send them to daycare or elderly parents. What do you do?

Read this post by a student on the risks of going back in person (much as I would love it). Remember this is a Yale student. Probably relatively privileged. Probably very serious about learning. At an institution that would not normally be happy doing online (and possibly did not do it very well, on average, maybe)

Read this Twitter thread by Lee Skallerup Bessette reminding us all that good online learning is possible and we know it even if faculty new to online don’t know it yet. They can try and learn and we can help them. We know it’s hard but it is our responsibility to try.

My basic message is: center equity and wellbeing. Find out what your constraints are. And find creative ways (if needed) to achieve your goals. It’s possible. It really is.

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