Designing for the New Normal

Written by
Lee Skallerup Bessette

Nov 1, 2021

Nov 1, 2021 • by Lee Skallerup Bessette

Our campus is entirely in person this fall. We required everyone on campus (faculty, students and staff) to be fully vaccinated. We have a mask mandate from the city that our institution is located in. There is random testing and a daily attestation that we all fill out if and when we are going to campus. So far, we have had relatively few cases of COVID-19 on campus.

We have done everything to keep our community safe from a COVID-19 outbreak. And yet, as our faculty have reported to us, in-class attendance is abysmal.

Class Difficulties

Our students are getting the flu, and after a year and a half of not getting sick, it's hitting them hard. And now, there is apparently a stomach bug that is making the rounds through the student population. Not to mention, faculty and staff who have to stay home because of their own kids (or themselves) are quarantined.

The faculty are saying that their syllabi are in shambles from the large number of student absences. Short of moving everything remote again (something few have an appetite for), faculty have no answers for the challenge that has presented itself this semester.

Students, perhaps for the first time in recent history, are staying away when they are sick.

Even those faculty who are flexible with attendance policies and deadlines are finding it unsustainable when more than half the class has missed half the classes—the flexibility relies on only a small minority of students missing class or needing extensions, not the majority. What was once assumed to be exceptional is now the norm.

Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

And, I want to emphasize, that is a good thing. How many of us attended class when we were running a fever or had just thrown up because of the pressure to not miss class and the message that it was unacceptable to ever not show up? How many of our students, sitting shivering in the back or uncomfortably trying to stifle sneezes and severe coughs, came to our class? Because they had internalized the expectation that you always show up to class.

And how many of us, or our colleagues, reinforced that notion through policies that required a doctor's note (for overworked health centers and uninsured students, this represents a major barrier) or that you were “on your own” if you missed class?

We have built our entire educational system, but in particular our course design, on the (ableist) assumption of near-100% attendance from near-100% of the students. We have had the message drilled into us that the easiest way to ensure student success—with regard to persistence, retention and graduation—is to require that students attend class. The research clearly shows a strong correlation between class attendance and academic performance. But could that be because the design favors those who achieve near-perfect attendance?

Not Superhuman

I want our students to stay home when they are sick and to be able to focus on getting well, instead of worrying about being penalized for having a body that is not invincible. Because that is the message that our system has for too long sent to students: We expect them to be superhuman, never get sick or injured or have any other physical ailments, or else they will not be successful in university.

This expectation of being a superhuman extends to faculty and staff as well, disproportionately impacting women, BIPOC and, especially, disabled faculty. How many of us have gone to campus when we were sick, lest we appear less dedicated, less able, less superhuman than the baseline expectations?

Sickness in our culture is a sign of moral weakness, that if you can't just “naturally” resist getting ill, then there is something wrong with, something unworthy about you. Never mind that women, BIPOC and the disabled (already disadvantaged) overwhelmingly have to deal with external stressors both at work and in the home that compromise our immune systems, making it more likely for us to fall ill. Taking care of our sick kids or other dependents, losing sleep and sacrificing other forms of self-care and well-being create circumstances that guarantee that we will get sick. And when we do get sick, we get really sick.

Now extrapolate that to our students, in particular our most vulnerable, who may not be able to afford to eat (let alone eat healthy) and may lack adequate health insurance for preventative care and/or be in unstable living arrangements that impact sleep and increase stress. Everyone gets sick, but our most vulnerable students risk getting sicker and staying sicker longer.

Requiring attendance puts everyone at risk of getting sick, but it also places students who are already struggling in an even more precarious situation.

I hope what is happening in 2021, where students and faculty who are sick are finally staying away, persists. If they are not because of institutional policy, then those policies can change to accommodate that simple fact that our bodies are not indestructible.

Redesigning Courses

And if that is the case, then we need to radically reimagine how we design our courses, our programs, even our institutions. The buzz is that “hybrid” is here to stay, but what does that mean, practically, for our courses? Much of the hybrid I see right now is still trying to recreate the classroom experience as it has always been, just with Zoom. The expectation is still that everyone meets weekly at the assigned time for the assigned time (a.k.a. contact hours).

This is not an all-or-nothing proposition, that if we are not all in person at the (assigned) times then the class must be remote or even an online class. But how do we “count” contact time? How do we utilize in-person time? How do we design for bodies that get sick and don't always function at the required level for learning? That is going to be one of the most important questions moving forward because the days of blaming the student—for not attending class and as a reason for their failure—is no longer possible.

Of course, if we don't blame the students, then it is easy to blame the faculty instead for not doing enough for those students. But, of course, that blame will fall disproportionately on women and BIPOC, who are most likely already trying to help the students succeed in a system that is designed to see them fail at their efforts. We need to help faculty think about radical course redesign. And we need institutions to take long, hard looks at how these systems have been designed in order to create conditions for student success given this new normal.

I am, of course, not saying anything that those in disability studies haven't been saying for decades, that the system is set up against anyone who isn't able-bodied. We have for too long been able to ignore what they have said because we did not see our bodies as anything but indestructible, or at least did not want anyone else to see ourselves as anything but that.

We are being confronted with the reality that we are all living in bodies that break down, get sick, really sick, and can't survive in the current system. This is a hard reality to face in our society. But we must face it and then come together to redesign the learning experience for everyone.

Not to be hyperbolic, but our lives literally depend on it.