Will Fall Herald a Return to Physical Classrooms on Campus?

Or some new normal?

Posted Feb 25, 2021

As chairperson of my department, I had to plan the course schedule for the Fall 2021 semester a few weeks ago. Students will be registering for these classes in the coming weeks. When my colleagues and I laid out the schedule, we wondered what modality we would be using for teaching in late August.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most colleges and universities have relied on remote learning (i.e., Zoom classes) for a large part of their course delivery since March 2020 (yes, it is almost a year now we’ve been in this brave new teaching world). With the slow but sure rollout of vaccines this spring, will many or most courses return to familiar “face-to-face” delivery come the fall?

Let me provide a three-word answer: “We don’t know.”

My institution—our administrators, faculty, and staff—is hopeful that we will be able to return to our physical classrooms in the fall. Some courses may continue to have a hybrid component (i.e., one or two class meetings per week may be virtual, while the remainder will be face to face) but there will likely be fewer fully remote offerings. But—we shall see.

August is a ways off and we won’t know entirely what to expect until a few weeks before the fall semester begins. I suspect this will be true of most colleges and universities in the United States. How can we plan for an uncertain fall? Here are some suggestions.

  • Prepare “as if” you will be teaching face to face.
  • But also be ready to switch to a hybrid class or a fully remote one. Set up your course shell (my campus uses CANVAS as its platform) so that the syllabus, grades, attendance, and assignments are available online for students to access.
  • If you use PowerPoint slides, prepare them for your physical class – you can always use them for hybrid or remote learning, if need be.
  • Consider whether any student collaborative projects can be done remotely or if they can only be done in a face-to-face manner. Perhaps you can “tweak” the project so that if need be it can still be done by student groups meeting via Zoom.
  • As you may have learned, students can give oral presentations via Zoom, including sharing slide shows—so such assignments can likely be accommodated in whatever modality happens on your campus in the fall.
  • Institutions should gently warn students ahead of time that while “face-to-face” courses are planned, the reality of the health situation on campus and in the local community may change that.
  • We do know that social distancing practices and the wearing of masks will likely continue in the fall semester and perhaps beyond that time. This information is important and should also be shared with students.
  • Wise faculty members will create detailed and flexible course syllabi this spring or summer for the fall. I’ve never been a big fan of the word “nimble,” but it fits this instance; faculty should be nimble, come what may, come fall 2021.
  • Innovative institutions will continue to offer faculty development opportunities via workshops, talks, virtual conference attendance, etc., so that their full-time and adjunct faculty members can continue to develop new skills. We will likely see some growth of virtual courses or course components once the pandemic is over—whenever that will be—so continuing to help faculty improve their online teaching will benefit students and the larger institution. My college’s Center for Teaching and Learning has done an amazing job doing this since before the pandemic began.

Remember the old adage: Forewarned is forearmed.