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The Risks of Omicron Mean Starting the Semester Online Was the Right Move

Recently, Brown University economist Emily Oster penned an opinion piece in “The Atlantic” making three core points: (1) institutions can simply mandate vaccinations (or less explicitly, masks); (2) in-person learning will ease student mental distress; and (3) online instruction is harmful to students. While acknowledging Oster’s brilliance in her field of expertise, my experience as a higher education researcher and instructor suggests she may have missed the mark.

First, Oster stated, “Universities do have a responsibility to the wider community. They can fulfill this responsibility through mandating vaccines and boosters for their students and employees.” I could not agree more with her first sentence. Institutions absolutely have obligations to students, employees and the wider community. However, I take issue with her suggestion that institutions could simply mandate vaccinations (or potentially masks). It seems as if Oster has not been paying attention to the wider sociopolitical preferences and relative pressures placed on institutions since the start of the pandemic. I find ignoring these pressures surprising given her research was (incorrectly) cited by the governor of Florida as justification to financially punish school districts for mask mandates.

As my research using the College Crisis Initiative data shows, state and county-level sociopolitical features and preferences played a strong role in influencing whether institutions were in-person for fall 2020. For example, the strongest factor associated with whether four-year institutions resumed in-person instruction was whether the state government was led by Republicans; for two-year public institutions, the strongest positive effect on in-person instruction was by how much the county voted for (or against) the GOP presidential candidate in 2016. Furthermore, in updated research my team will present at the Association for Education Finance and Policy national conference, the effects of state sociopolitical features were twice as strong in affecting in-person instruction for spring 2021. In both studies, COVID-related factors have played second fiddle to political-related factors. Given how these political pressures previously manifested for a primarily in-person modality, it makes sense we should consider them for other policies such as mask and vaccination mandates.

For example, I am a state employee in Tennessee, where a law was recently passed to prohibit public universities from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. In combination with court-based decisions, the passage of this law has created an environment where messages and expectations are mixed as institutions try to comply with the federal vaccination mandate and the new state-based framework. Similar frameworks have also been enacted in Florida and Alabama. In short, many institutions are legally unable to choose to mandate vaccines. The lack of attention to the constraints created by politics here, in my view, illustrates shortsightedness.

I agree with Oster that students’ mental health is a timely and important consideration. As an educator, this topic is at the forefront of my mind, and I’ve yet to meet an administrator who is unconcerned about the issue. As a social scientist, this is an area I have researched using both qualitative and quantitative methods. While an important concern, Oster failed to provide a wider context to frame the issue. Beyond college students, since the start of the pandemic a higher share of younger adults have experienced mental distress (and this is not uniquely an American issue). With this framing, I am not confident in her supposition that in-person instruction may be able to ease these issues (even a little bit). This is especially the case if the root cause of the mental distress is a general adaptation to the new normal of the pandemic—given that lately, everything seems uncertain. Also ignored are potential stressors placed on students who may not feel safe sitting in the classrooms, notably in institutions that could not mandate vaccines or mask compliance—and the negative effects of any immediate pivots made due to too many students or faculty contracting COVID-19. Again, I believe the issue is complicated, and absent strong data to suggest in-person courses could ease students’ mental health distress (or cause more distress), to suggest such is premature.

To Oster’s argument that in-person instruction is superior to online instruction, if we examine this in terms of the pandemic, data suggest students did not like the switch, and learning-related outcomes were weaker. To be fair, the pandemic forced many instructors who have never been trained to teach online or have no experience with online teaching to do so—quickly with limited support. The program where I am a faculty member at the University of Memphis, Higher and Adult Education, is designed to be online, and I have been trained to create positive online environments. Therefore, I have a fair mixture of skills and experience to better understand what may or may not work using an all-online modality. It is extremely difficult to build highly functioning, consistently engaged online classrooms, but it is not impossible. Given that Oster’s example of online teaching consists of “getting through to 50 screens on Zoom,” I can see the resistance toward online instruction. Just reading that bored me—and if instructors find something boring, so will students.

That failure point is on the instructor. We do not have to engage online teaching this way, nor do instructors need to set up discussion boards and require students to respond to X number of other students. I use Slack in my courses to encourage a natural conversation dynamic and keep students engaged as if we were actively texting each other. There are many other tools beyond the LMS and Zoom that could help bridge the known gaps between online and in-person academic outcomes. Whereas I cannot disagree that recent studies generally suggest academic outcomes during the pandemic have been weaker for online instruction, we also cannot be sure that in-person instruction is the appropriate choice when considering community and student health.

As you have likely read, many leaders note that COVID-19 is not that dangerous to students when compared to, say, the elderly, as cases are generally milder and students are not as likely to be hospitalized or die. However, this does not imply the risks are zero, as previous research has illustrated: Resuming in-person instruction at colleges was connected to overall per-capita increases in county cases—thus, placing students and the wider community at greater risk. The justifications cited above also ignore any potential long-term health effects, which have recently been dubbed as “Long Hauler” effects (also Long COVID). Accordingly, the long-term effects of contracting COVID-19 could include “damage to the lungs, heart, nervous system, kidneys, liver, and other organs. Mental health problems can arise from grief and loss, unresolved pain or fatigue, or from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after treatment in the intensive care unit,” according to Chung and associates at Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Omicron strain is more infectious than the Delta strain—including for the vaccinated. Earlier reports suggested the Omicron strain may also be considered less severe than Delta pertaining to hospitalization and death. However, this debate is not quite settled, as Delta was more severe than the original strain and with recent data show strong upticks in per capita hospitalization rates for children and younger adults.

Yet, we know almost nothing related to these long-haul COVID outcomes. So, the trade-off to help ease students’ mental distress is to force students in classrooms, potentially exposing them to a more easily transmissible pathogen that may result in long-term health effects, including increased mental distress?

It remains easy to consider a pivot to online instruction “outdated” when focusing only on hospitalizations and deaths (of only students) and ignoring these potential long-term outcomes. When examining the wider picture, I am not sure a pivot is actually “outdated.” As a reminder to readers, many institutions considered starting the semester online for only a few weeks as the Omicron spike flattens. This was not an unreasonable decision to protect students, employees, and the wider community given that new cases for January 10, 2022 spiked to nearly 1.5 million, with over 140,000 people hospitalized, and in a 14-day period from January 5 to January 18, the U.S. experienced 10.66 million new cases. Since Oster’s piece was published, cases have spiked among college students, for example in Georgia, Michigan, and Minnesota—with individual institutions experiencing extremely strong upticks, such as Dartmouth.

Overall, I believe that Oster is an outstanding academic with wide influence. However, her piece missed the mark on several points. Given the widespread traction Oster enjoys, her piece likely drove misinformation—like the idea that all institutions could simply enforce vaccine (or mask) mandates—and could be used by political entities or voting blocs to force institutional decisions. Given the statistics above, I do not see how decisions to pivot online for a few weeks (or longer depending on the next variant attributes) to protect the health of students, employees and the wider community is “outdated.” I would suggest such decisions promote the appropriate level of caution needed to uphold universities’ responsibility to students, faculty and staff, and the wider community—which Oster and I both agree is crucial.


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