COVID-19 and Course Design: Some Considerations

As we approach the fall semester, students’ lives will continue to be impacted by the ongoing public health crisis and its social and economic ramifications. The timelines for recovery and processing the implications of this ongoing event vary significantly across contexts. This reality will continue to shape our teaching as we move towards a new academic year. 

Successful courses progress together through a calendar, often centered on simultaneous learning experiences, where the class moves as a community at a certain pace. The nature of the pandemic combined with the forced transition to distance learning require us reflect upon our assumptions about both time and policy in course design and planning.

The following considerations may help us create courses that reflect and respect students’ experiences through these trying times.

The Possibility of Illness

As we prepare for the next school year, it’s important to keep in mind the possibility that students in our courses and members of the broader communities CUNY serves will still be dealing with illness in varying ways. Should students get sick themselves, these illnesses may range in severity from mild symptoms to extended hospitalization, or death. Student illness may have varying timelines for recovery; some students may recover in a few days, and some may be subject to recurring “waves” of illness over the course of weeks. Students who have recovered may not have time or energy to keep up with or complete coursework. Students may also be faced with illness within their families, and may be caring for the ill or be forced to take on additional care responsibilities as a result of others’ illnesses. The increased responsibility under such circumstances can take a physical toll, and also sap energy that otherwise would have been available for coursework.

Faculty should avoid any decision that penalizes students for being sick, and should build in as much flexibility as possible that accounts for the care work students may be asked to do. Course policies should make explicit that faculty value and respect the students’ household and family health, and note how arrangements will be made in the case of need.

The Challenges of Grieving

Faculty and students alike are living through an era of profound loss. We’ve lost family and friends, income, a sense of community and connectedness, and many of us have lost our sense of what the future may hold for us. We have limited access to the rituals through which we grieve, make sense of loss, and begin complex healing processes. How does one teach and learn in a discipline while grieving? How does the inability to grieve as fully as one needs impact our ability to do our work, or manage day-to-day tasks? How do we balance the desire to lose ourselves in our work with the need to be constantly vigilant and aware of shifting contexts? 

For some resources on addressing grief in the classroom, see Ashley Marinaccio’s “Untethered: Supporting Students through Grief and Crisis” at Visible Pedagogy, and visit the Coalition to Support Grieving Students

The Impacts of “Social” Distancing

No matter what kind of institution a student attends, learning experiences are social. In face-to-face instruction, learning doesn’t just happen inside the classroom, but also in the hallways that connect them and the spaces where students congregate. Our social world has changed drastically. Students will be less able to interact in their college-related events, departments, and other spaces that surround the university. It will be harder for them to connect with classmates before and after synchronous sessions, and build broad, multivariant connections with the learning that we’re pursuing together. Students who are experiencing the ongoing disruption of their social world may be more prone to alienation, loneliness, and depression. This could have a negative impact on their connection to their work in the university, and their overall health. 

Faculty should consider what kinds of sociality they can build into their courses. They should invite and facilitate as wide an array of paths to connection as possible, and seek to build community within their courses. Faculty should also be aware and relay to students mental health resources available from and beyond the campus community.  

The Disruptions of Economic Insecurity

We are not only in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, but we are also experiencing the most violent economic downturn of our lifetimes. CUNY students and faculty—as well as the institutions where we teach and learn and the communities that surround them—have already been impacted by a generation of austerity. And the cuts keep coming. In addition to job and income loss, the social and economic support structures that may catch New Yorkers when they fall will be under ongoing strain.   

This has a range of impacts on how students experience learning in our courses. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of all CUNY students experience food insecurity during the academic year, and one study found that 14% of CUNY students experienced homelessness. These dynamics will be intensified in the next academic year. Faculty should be mindful of how these realities impact our students, and consider them when making decisions and assumptions about their access to resources and materials necessary to succeed in our courses.   

The Question of Access

Ensuring that our courses and curricula are accessible to all students requires that faculty approach their work with significant care and vigilance. The principles of Universal Design for Learning offer some guidance and support for those just beginning to think intentionally about accessible pedagogical practices. 

The forced shift to distance instruction at CUNY raises several questions around accessibility to which faculty should attend. Faculty should consider the following questions when envisioning and planning their work with students: 

  • What kinds of technologies do my students have access to, and will they be sufficient to meet the requirements of the course? 
  • Do students have limits on their connectivity? Can they only connect at certain times? Do they have access to sufficient bandwidth for synchronous video meetings? Are they connecting via data plans rather than via wifi, and might there be caps on that data access?
  • Are they connecting via a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone, and how might these devices shape their learning experience?
  • Do students have a private, quiet space to study/participate in conversations? If not, might their lack of privacy impact their ability to interact openly and fully with course content that may make them vulnerable, given their context?
  • Do students have consistent and supported ways to access reading materials, and to complete and submit asynchronous assignments?

The Value of a CUNY Education

For decades, a degree from CUNY has been the primary path to economic opportunity and security for working-class and poor New Yorkers. Our current context does not change that fundamental fact about CUNY’s role in the life of the city. It should, however, refocus our attention as faculty members to each instructional decision that we make. It is worth thinking through and perhaps discussing openly with our students how the value and role of higher education might have changed in this moment. It is worth considering how their pathways to engaging with your discipline may be impacted by our context. It is also worth considering how your course may fit within their immediate priorities and needs, and approaching your policy and decision-making with a sensitivity the challenges students may find striking a consistent balance. 

Is the work that you are asking your students to do worth their effort and time? Do they understand how to do this work, and as importantly, why they’re doing it? We shouldn’t take for granted that our students automatically know the value of our class in this troubled moment, and it’s wise to be explicit about why our choices are meaningful, and how they are preparing students for present and future challenges at CUNY and beyond. 

Our Own Trauma

Our students are not the only people in our classes experiencing ongoing trauma. We all are as well, as are the other other faculty, staff, and administrators on the campuses where we teach. It is important to acknowledge this, to know that we are not alone in our fear and anxiety, and to accept that it will impact everyone’s ability to effectively do their work. These times call for generosity of spirit, flexibility and acceptance, and a commitment to the ongoing work of building community. 

Know that there are resources at the Graduate Center to support students through this time. The Teaching and Learning Center can help you think through difficult pedagogical questions. And, the Wellness Center offers a variety of health and counseling services for GC students. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of these important resources.