Education Under COVID-19
Most colleges and universities in the United States, and universities in many countries around the world, are now physically closed. Since the reckoning of the COVID-19 pandemic, students were forced to leave their dorm rooms and professors were forced to halt research studies. Similar to the labor market as a whole, these decisions were mostly made with health and safety in mind. However, these decisions disrupted campus life and exposed how universities are not immune to the inequalities that exist in our broader society.
As universities try to reduce financial deficits, layoffs and furloughs, even for professors, are imminent. For many students, their valuables are still housed in dormitories. For students who do not have a “family home” including some low-income students or those whose parents have passed away, being forced to leave campus has detrimental effects. The valuables in their dorm rooms on campus are the only property they possess. Additionally, some international students were unable to travel to their home countries before shutdowns.
Virtual learning is hit or miss depending on university resources and the instructor’s skill set with online learning environments. Inequality surfaces here as well. Some students either do not have technological devices equipped for online learning, have to share with siblings who are being homeschooled, or do not have adequate wi-fi to fully engage online. Students with disabilities are at even greater disadvantage in this environment.
Furthermore, the research of graduate students and advanced undergraduates is limited by the inability for some site licenses for statistical programs to be accessible off of university networks. Altogether, it is clear that the online learning environment is subpar relative to in-person instruction. As a result, many universities have gone to a pass/fail grading system.
These inequalities in education raise an important question: what is the responsibility of universities to the students they serve? After all, student tuition and housing costs are the financial life blood of universities. While some universities are providing prorated refunds for housing, parking, and meal plans, and forming creative strategies to get students their valuables, the implementation of these plans are more arduous than some campuses are equipped to handle.
Professors and instructors are thinking about what they can do at this moment. Unless one is an administrator or on a COVID-19 response task force, they are often watching as bystanders as decisions about their students, research, and lives are being made for them. Assistant professors are worried about the “publish or perish” doctrine while thinking about their families’ health. Professors are worried about their research centers, particularly staff members on soft, grant money. Graduate students are trying to formulate coherent sentences for comprehensive exams and others are worried about missing their annual meeting as they enter the job market. Undergraduates may be caring for family members or living in unsafe environments.
Simply put, these are difficult and uncharted times. The articles in this wave of Contexts Magazine: Sociology for the Public’s COVID-19 special online issue, address the social psychological dynamics of the pandemic. Nicole Gonzalez-Van Cleve calls for radical compassion from professors during our interactions with students. Tanya Rouleau Whitworth, Katherine Cyr, and Anthony Paik provide data on how students are coping during this time. Jimi Adams and Ryan Light highlight why disciplinary collaborations are important during a pandemic. Unlike the physical walls of campus, researchers, potentially more than ever, have no excuse but to leverage the permeability of technology and engage in virtual collaboration across disciplines, foster self-care, and learn how to employ radical compassion.
– Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas
- “Educators Need to Employ Radical Compassion during COVID-19” by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve
- “Remotely Coping: How are Students Faring during the COVID-19 Pandemic?” by Tanya Rouleau Whitworth, Katherine Cyr, and Anthony Paik
- “Collaboration Across Disciplines in COVID-19” by jimi adams and Ryan Light
Educators Need to Employ Radical Compassion during COVID-19 by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve
None of us were trained for this moment; that, we must admit. No more denial and no more posturing. And no more searching social media for “best practices” to fix what has already been broken. If we are honest with ourselves, we were not even trained to teach. Our graduate training (at best) prepared us to lecture at students- to be sages on stages.
No, we were trained as researchers – trained to be objective, measured, and even, clinical.
And yet, here we are; educating during a global pandemic that, at times, feels like an Orwellian-nightmare. Our lecture halls are empty and our students are now presented as tiny squares on a Zoom App. Students vacated the dorms as maintenance crews scrubbed and disinfected almost any evidence that they were there but a month ago. Campuses everywhere – one by one – went silent, and desolate. Dorms that once housed hall parties and late-night study session are now being repurposed as make-shift hospitals for Coronavirus patients.
Our “wish” for quiet, undisturbed office hours, came true. However, we never imagined that it would look like this.
In 2016, Michael Burawoy asked us: What does it mean to live for sociology, today? In these unprecedent times, I find myself revisiting this question: what does it mean to live for sociology amidst our grief – ours, our students, and our global community?What are our degrees without the ceremony of commencement with all its tears, pageantry and purpose? What are our campuses without our students? What is the vocation of our discipline?
As the grief of this new reality set-in, I wrote a letter to my graduate students in my Ph.D. seminar. I didn’t update the reading list nor did I brief them on the logistics of the Zoom conference for our class. Instead, I reassured them that this was the time to use their love of learning and sociology as a means to a new end – a way to connect with each other, ease anxiety and find a sense of calm and peace during a global crisis. As I wrote,
Just submit to the grief. Do not expect to learn everything. You are grieving and distracted but just move forward. You will look back and be astounded at what is possible even in times of grief and struggle…. Find moments of respite and remember why you loved intellectual life to begin with. Find the joy again.
Rather than earning a grade (or my approval), I urged them to learn for themselves and each other. I called upon them to do sociology for its own sake – for the love of our discipline, for its capacity to bring us joy and for hope to envision a better post-pandemic future.
What I didn’t intend was that this letter would be one of my most widely read and circulated written-pieces, shared thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter and email. I received responses from all over the world; educators, parents and students read the letter in China, India, the United Kingdom, Australia and all-over United States.
In one case, a student from NYU-Shanghai sent my letter back to their friend in the United States who then shared the letter with their former adviser (and my good friend), Professor Courtney Patterson-Faye. This student said that the letter reminded him of Patterson-Faye’s generosity and care and he thanked her for “absolving” him of pressure and encouraging him to put his wellbeing before anything else. He ended by saying, “whoever you are teaching now, I am grateful that they have a professor as deeply compassionate as you.”
Professor Patterson-Faye sent this message back to me with a note of thanks for a letter that traveled around the world and back again – linking the two of us together through our students and that single message of compassion. A letter of compassion spread exponentially – as though it was anti-virus in this era of crisis and fear.
As sociologists, we know this is data – evidence that a type of radical compassion that can heal and bond us during a time of collective uncertainty, physical isolation and even, fear. It is a “radical” compassion because it is a value that our institutions have rarely acknowledged or rewarded. As I have written in my work, our “pursuit of objectivity” in our research scares us into incorporating considerations of compassion, morality, humanity and grace into our research despite the overwhelming evidence that it may be an antidote for the pain and loss that we are experiencing in this moment. And yet, if we let ourselves feel– sorrow, indignation, and even, anger – it may be self-evident that a radical compassion is the only way that we can move forward for ourselves, our students, and our institutions. These are unprecedented times and unprecedented times change institutions and sociology is not immune.
Our students are impacted by the very social forces and structures that we study. They are not our research “subjects” but certainly, we are uniquely positioned to understand the struggles they face.
Some of our students are first generation college students. Their parents are cleaning hospitals rather than practicing medicine within them. Some students are housing-insecure and the very act of a quarantine is unattainable without privilege and means. Some of our international students are stuck in a foreign country- isolated and far from family. We understand the toll of social isolation on individuals and society. We know that many students will soon have trouble making their tuition payments – even students who were previously secure – as jobs dissolve and vanish from our economy. We know that the economy is about people, not widgets – people with hopes, dreams and aspirations and we know the social and personal anxiety that economic downturns can take. We know these things because sociologists have been studying these things – revealing inconvenient truths on the state of social inequality, prejudice and injustice that are crucial variables impacting our students’ experiences and impacting the world during this global pandemic.
These sociological insights are the foundation of empathy upon which radical compassion is built and should drive both our research questions and our pedagogy moving forward. It should also change our commitment to how we communicate sociology to the world including our students. This pandemic has a way of opening up people’s eyes to many terrible injustices and inequalities that too often go unnoticed. But, we, sociologists, have noticed, studied and written, and it seems unimaginable that we would be silent about this work. If something could be called “sociological malpractice,” it would be bearing witness to social injustice and inequality and not doing anything to try to expose it or change it. If we are a discipline of radical compassion, then that orientation must be part of our disciplinary commitment; Not part of the periphery or the margins of our profession, but part of the very definition of what it means to be a sociologist.
Sociologist Bin Xu’s award-winning book, The Politics of Compassion The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China, reminds us that compassion is, perhaps, a universal emotion in times of suffering. However, compassion needs the optimal “social conditions to turn into public expressions and action.” Sociologists are uniquely positioned to be that impetus for the type of social change within academia that will move us forward in a post-pandemic world.
Sociology may be a vocation – a type of “commitment without guarantees” – but it is one that must be revitalized for new eras and new challenges. Max Weber likely knew this as well. He lived through World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. By 1920, in a late resurgence of the virus, the flu took his life. A year before his death, he warned: “not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.” Certainly, darkness is what we are living through in this moment. But, for the long term, we must be the light and the hope forward and that hope forward is through a radical compassion born of shared suffering and empathy – the kind that has the capacity to heal our students and each other. Perhaps, this is a Du Boisian vision, a type of sociology born of our experience and motivated by an urgency to be responsive to this moment for our students, for ourselves and for our global community.
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Brown University and an affiliated scholar with the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, IL. She is the author of the book, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Courts and The Waiting Room.
Remotely Coping: How are Students Faring during the COVID-19 Pandemic? by Tanya Rouleau Whitworth, Katherine Cyr, and Anthony Paik
The COVID-19 pandemic, with approximately 250,000 infections and 10,000 deaths worldwide at the time of this writing, spawns public-health crises in almost every country it touches and generates dramatic negative spillovers on economies. Countries are responding with unprecedented public health interventions, including the cancellation of meetings, events and even professional sports, closures of stores, restaurants and bars, implementation of travel restrictions, “social distancing,” orders to “shelter in place” and to quarantine, all designed to slow down the epidemic spread or “flatten the curve” of COVID-19. In March 2020, these efforts also led to the cessation of in-person classes across thousands of schools, colleges, and universities, upending the education of approximately 53 million K-12 students and millions more undergraduate and graduate students. As colleges and universities continue moving classes online, how students are navigating this shock to their education is unclear.
We can provide some insight to this question. Although the first case of COVID-19 in the United States (US) was diagnosed in January 2020, public awareness surrounding the virus remained low through much of February. Figure 1 shows searches in the US for “coronavirus,” according to Google Trends data for the period of January 15th to March 17th. “Coronavirus” searches actually decreased during February, compared to late January. In late February, interest in “coronavirus” began climbing, from three percent of peak popularity on February 21st to 20 percent on February 29th. Interest in COVID-19 then exploded, reaching peak popularity on Google on March 15th. Amidst the overwhelming interest and concern surrounding the emerging COVID-19 crisis in the US, our research team has been collecting data capturing student experiences before, during, and after the cessation of in-person classes.
Our research team has been fielding the Student Experiences in Law School Study (SELSS), which included an online survey in fall 2019 of 744 first-year law students at three schools and a follow-up survey launched on February 27th that will continue through this spring semester 2020. At the time of this writing, we have collected almost four weeks of real-time data from 399 law students as COVID-19 dramatically impacted their education, including announcements to move classes online between March 12th and March 16th. Specifically, our data allow us to examine student perceptions at various points in time, based on when students completed their surveys, and can provide insights about how students are coping with the increased concern around COVID-19 as well as the public health intervention of moving in-person classes to remote learning.
The SELSS survey asked students about their law-school related stress or anxiety, satisfaction with their legal education, perceived faculty supportiveness, sense of belonging to their law school community, and fatalism. Figure 2 summarizes mean responses on five-point scales, where 1 indicates low levels or strong disagreement and 5, high levels or strong agreement. Compared to responses recorded during “week one,” which coincides with the end of February, students completing surveys in “week two” (March 1-7), “week three” (March 8-14), and “week four” (March 15-18) reported, on average, a bit more school stress than those completing surveys during week one. For school satisfaction, there was an initial dip at week two, but it then rebounded dramatically in weeks three and four. For perceived faculty supportiveness, the level is quite high, but largely stable over time. Similarly to school satisfaction, for sense of school community, perceptions initially declined in week two but then exceeded week one levels in subsequent weeks. Finally, students’ fatalism dramatically increased in week three but then fell sharply in week four.
Figure 3 provides predicted values from ordinary least squares regressions of student perceptions on the week that surveys were completed, controlling not only for gender, law school, program type (JD versus LLM), fall semester grade point average, and political orientation, but also for lagged dependent variables taken from the fall survey. This is a more stringent type of model—that is, the inclusion of lagged dependent variables as predictors—that controls for many unmeasured determinants of our outcomes. This provides us with stronger confidence that the week when a survey was completed reflected, by and large, week-to-week differences in the exogenous shock of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ perceptions. We also tested whether our results were dependent on our modeling by employing ordinal logistic regression; this alternative modeling approach did not produce different patterns of statistical significance.
Figure 3 shows that student school stress, although elevated as time went on, was not statistically different from week one; perceived faculty supportiveness also did not change over time. In contrast, sense of community was negatively impacted in week two—when concern about COVID-19 was increasing but before schools had reacted—but then rebounded in subsequent weeks. Students’ school satisfaction increased by nearly half a point in week three—the week that law schools announced the abandonment of in-person classes—but then retracted in week four. Finally, student fatalism was significantly higher in week three than in week one, but then also retracted. The apparent curvilinear patterns for school satisfaction, sense of community, and fatalism all suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic did negatively impact students, but this effect was temporary and disappeared as the law schools adapted interventions to address both the pandemic and to meet their mission of educating students.
It is too early to know the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on student outcomes, but our research sheds a little light on short-term changes in students’ perceptions of their schooling. We can tentatively say that law students are responding well to the pandemic-induced transition to remote learning, perhaps because of the perception that their schools are taking public health and their education seriously.
Tanya Rouleau Whitworth is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Katherine Cyr is a Masters Candidate in Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Anthony Paik is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Collaboration Across Disciplines in COVID-19 by jimi adams and Ryan Light
As the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2)—the virus that causes COVID-19—spreads across the globe, scientific coordination plays a key role in developing an effective response, just as in any rapidly unfolding event. This need for an appropriate but speedy response can run counter to scientific norms that are often seen as deliberate (slow), cautious (desiring abundance of evidence before recommending actions), and conservative (not prone to change).
The consequences of this pandemic and our efforts to curb its effects are profoundly social. These efforts involve the coordination of large communities of scientists, policy makers, and citizens. Therefore, it is important to understand the social dimensions that provide the backbone of those efforts, and theoretical and empirical tools for analyzing the structure and changes of scientific fields can helpfully inform them. Thus, here we: (1) describe the intersection of a sampling of the disciplinary perspectives needed to develop an effective response, (2) illustrate how this has translated into coordinated COVID-19 responses to date, and (3) discuss the potential of “open science” in these efforts.
Why Collaboration Matters
A key premise of the push for interdisciplinary research is that integrative scientific approaches draw on key insights from divergent disciplinary perspectives when addressing new problems, in ways that can lead to more rapid resolution. This implies that any efforts to effectively and quickly curtail the potentially devastating effects of COVID-19 necessitate drawing together the vast array of applicable scientific resources.
Scientists mobilize resources to solve major challenges often through collaboration. For example, developing accurate testing kits involves the expertise of biochemists and virologists. Distributing these kits enlists those with knowledge of how to optimize production and supply chains; social/behavioral scientists’ knowledge shapes how to optimize roll-out, and testing administration and assessing results involves clinicians and lab techs from a range of specialties. Accurate surveillance data are a backbone for developing intervention efforts, which variously combine the skill-sets of statisticians, epidemiologists, and demographers. These efforts inform the modeling efforts conducted by others with complementary skill-sets in those and related fields. Any such projections necessarily incorporate substantial amounts of uncertainty, given how knowledge rapidly changes. Complexity science demonstrates how small behavioral changes or virologic differences can produce huge alterations to expected trajectories, allowing the range of plausibility to incorporate even the best- and worst-case scenarios. This uncertainty requires effective science communication skills to avoid under- or over-reacting based on any single model, with computer, information, and political sciences needed to prevent the spread of misinformation. Moreover, model assemblages–aggregating across multiple existing strategies–are necessary to justify optimal response strategies using the best current information. Survey researchers from across the social sciences, combined with statisticians, have the tools to assess how prevalence estimates’ sampling biases according to symptomatology require adjustment to incorporate with epidemiologists’ and demographers’ calculations of case fatality rates from those estimates. Any hope for a vaccinerequires the best work from immunologists, geneticists, and many of the other groups listed above. Psychologists, sociologists, and economists will be needed to understand the downstream consequences for mental health, social relations, and economic impacts. In sum, each individual task necessitates interdisciplinary integration, and the collective response is also a multi-level integration effort.
What’s happened so far
In a little over three months, the scientific community has already developed a wide-ranging approach to understanding COVID-19, reflecting these interdisciplinary, collaborative efforts.
To demonstrate this, consider the 1,070 publications included in the PubMed MESH term for COVID-19 between December 2019 and March 18, 2020, remarkable in itself. From these articles, we constructed a coauthorship network (where each node represents a person, and each tie represents having written a paper together). Collaboration within this community is already robust; of the 5,111 authors, 5,006 have collaborated with at least one other author. Furthermore, the two large connected “components” (illustrated in Figure 1) include 2230 and 564 (red in Figure 1) scientists, respectively. The large component on the left of that panel left consists of two clusters of (1,864, blue and 366, yellow) scientists loosely held together by a handful of collaborations.
Next, we asked whether collaboration is related to geographic and specialization distributions by examining first authors’ addresses (where available) and publications’ keywords. Geographic region plays an important role in structuring scientific collaboration. The blue cluster consists of scientists from across the globe, but disproportionately includes authors from China and the U.S. The yellow cluster is also diverse but has the largest representation from Japanese authors. The red cluster almost exclusively consists of scientists located in China. Of additional note, while researchers from the UK and Italy are actively involved, they are more likely to be in the smaller, disconnected components not represented in Figure 1.
Research specialization at this stage is more integrated with scientists from many fields tackling the core initial questions about the biology and epidemiology of COVID-19 and, therefore, substantive distinction is less pronounced. The top keyword in each group is “pneumonia” or “SARS.” However, there is evidence of some subtle variation, with scientists in the blue cluster more likely to be working on diagnostic and genetic questions around keywords like “genome, viral” and “radiography, thoracic,” while the wider network is more likely to be working on epidemiological questions associated with keywords like “epidemiology” and “outbreak.”
The rapidly emerging science of COVID-19 is truly a global effort. Figure 2 illustrates that over 50 countries are represented among the publications’ first authors. Several countries (China, the U.S., and Japan in particular) are producing sizable proportions of this research, but the distribution across the globe highlights impressive and widespread scientific mobilization.
The ability to mobilize and coordinate quickly and broadly likely reflects the extent of COVID-19’s potential consequences. But it also has built upon the scientific community’s increasing embrace of a number of principles of open science, and corresponding efforts to develop infrastructure that facilitates data and information sharing. In particular, prominent examples of this can be seen in NextStrain, Open-COVID, and the CORD-19 challenge.
What have we learned & where do we go from here?
While there are many uncertainties about the nature of a new pathogen and the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, scientific mobilization that integrates knowledge from across the wide ranging intersection of applicable expertise will optimize our response strategy. Early rapid mobilization seems to be building on these potentialities. As we continue to coordinate these efforts, sociological contributions can continue to identify opportunities for improved social coordination, even while practicing social distancing.
jimi adams is an Associate Professor of Health and Behavioral Science at University of Colorado, Denver and Ryan Light is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Oregon.