For universities and higher education institutions, there are major questions to be addressed for the Fall semester of 2020. This is the first time in the last 100 years that educators will have to make key decisions about how to best prepare students for coming in close contact with one another due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Universities feature many crowded areas like dining halls, dormitories, and especially classrooms. Some undergraduate classes typically have between 50-100 students attending, especially for prerequisite courses.
The pressure is building for those at the top especially because of the principal of reciprocation. Some school administrations are optimistic that in-person classes will go smoothly even without a vaccine yet available, and this in putting pressure on other neighboring institutions to look at what their neighbors are doing and follow suit. The politics involved in this decision making process should be considered.
But whether or not resuming in-person classes goes according to plan, or needs to be, again, cancelled because of too many cases, is difficult to predict. Either way universities will need to put in place the right measures so that professors and PhD candidates (the ones who have the most at stake if things go wrong) will have some type of safety net.
The PhD stipend and tuition dollars at stake
Some of the biggest pressures to resume in-person classes has to do with the fatigue and cognitive processing of video lectures and videoconferencing. While many professionals who have moved their careers online are enjoying remote working and the flexibility it provides, students on the other hand are finding it much harder to concentrate during online lives streams, and parents are concerned that the amount of money they are paying for U.S. colleges (which is at a historically high level) is not worth it given the current circumstances.
But getting the full four-year college experience has long been a national belief of what sets young people up for success later in life. It breeds the academic integrity but also the social skills needed to have a successful career. This concept has re-emerged as a powerful agent of pressure for universities that are moving to hybrid based models. Parents want to know that the hybrid model is going to be just as good.
In addition to tuition dollars being at stake, PhD stipends also depend on in-class lectures because the model that has long been established to grant PhD candidates funding has been based upon candidates being able to help professors in the classroom and act as secondary role-models for knowledge seekers (the students).
Thus the risks of not going back to in-person classes for at least one semester might make universities susceptible to criticism from parents and other citizens that they cannot charge full tuition amounts (and thus pay their staff and PhD candidates) if the model is simply not as effective.
Moving to in-person tutoring to minimize case counts
One way universities can minimize case counts is by having PhD candidates conduct in-person tutoring sessions to prevent big groups meeting as often and spreading the virus. What we know about Covid-19 is that the virus tends to spread rapidly when many people are in a small, enclosed space, and the aerosolization of particles infects the air that everyone is sharing. Having one-on-one tutoring sessions with protective equipment is one way to mitigate the spread of the virus and give PhD candidates more responsibility.
In-person classes might be a short lived experiment
Overall, if in-person classes ends up being a petri-dish for more Covid cases, universities will be quick to sound the alarm. It is up to professors and administrators to have a plan B ready, and also to advocate for as much funding as possible for basic prevention equipment and supplies to keep classrooms clean and well ventilated. PhD candidates also have a shared responsibility to urge administrators to allocate more budgeting for masks for students, contact tracing equipment, and anything else needed to ensure that community spread does not occur (given that their lives will also be affected if a different model needs to be adopted).