An open letter to the fall semester

Dear fall semester,

I find it odd writing you, an inanimate object; but in a year that has had so little coherence to it, such a letter seems perfectly rationale.

We’re about to commence on the most unusual semester, and that’s coming off a rather bizarre spring term. It’s go time in one week at my institution.

Our students are eager for a regular college experience, but wearing a mask while on campus, by itself, makes that impossible. The faculty want a normal semester, but mandated closed doors and limited interaction with students makes that impossible. The staff want a normal semester so that their job security can be enhanced, but there’s no certainty of that even if students remain on campus for an entire term.

Perhaps the most frustrating reality of the next 15 weeks — we inside higher education have such little control over what happens to all of us. A widespread coronavirus outbreak on our campus…and home we go. Doesn’t matter what caused that outbreak; the faculty, staff and students are outta there. A widespread outbreak in our county…and home we might go, Doesn’t matter what caused the outbreak; the potential to overwhelm the health care system could necessitate us returning to where we were in March.

We kick off the term with a whole lot of courses typically taught on ground now being taught online. Other courses are offered in a hybrid format. Classes are being held in ballrooms and arena conference rooms, so as to allow the most number of people possible to safely gather.

I’m the optimist (or naive, and I’ve been called both), so I want to believe the semester will begin and end with us spending lots of time inside classrooms (even if they’re in atypical places). But the news from other colleges all across the country worries me. Sure, I enjoy teaching online, but the energy that comes from being inside the classroom can’t be matched via computer.

So, as we get ready to board the Fall 2020 flight, what are we in for? Will the turbulence become so dangerous that it forces us to land at an earlier time and in an unplanned place? Will we handle the bumps that come along and make it to Thanksgiving, which then allows us to have the final couple of weeks online as planned? Or are we in for the worst possible scenario: an aborted flight?

The “hope-for-the-best-but-plan-for-the-worst” mantra doesn’t work in this situation; too many really good people at my university have invested thousands of hours planning for the best. I want to see their efforts bear fruit.

Will I?

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