Recently, Brown University economist Emily Oster wrote an op-ed in The Atlantic that makes three key points: (1) institutions can simply require vaccinations (or, less explicitly, masks); (ii) Personal learning will relieve the student’s mental distress; and (3) online teaching is harmful to students. While I acknowledge Auster’s brilliance in her field of expertise, my experience as a higher education researcher and trainer suggests that she may have missed the mark.
First, Auster said, “Universities have a responsibility to the broader community. They can fulfill that responsibility by mandating vaccines and boosters for their students and staff.” I can’t agree more with her first sentence. Institutions fully have obligations to students, staff, and the wider community. However, I oppose her suggestion that institutions can simply mandate vaccinations (or possible masks). It seems as if Auster has not been paying attention to the broader social and political preferences and the relative pressures placed on institutions since the beginning of the pandemic. I find these pressures to be ignored surprising given that her research (incorrectly) has been cited by the governor of Florida as a justification for financially punishing school districts for mask mandates.
As my research using College Crisis Initiative data shows, state and county social and political features and preferences played a strong role in influencing whether institutions were personal in Fall 2020. For example, the strongest factor associated with whether four-year institutions resumed instruction was Character is whether a state’s government is led by Republicans; For public two-year institutions, the strongest positive impact on personal education was the extent to which the district voted (or against) the Republican presidential candidate in 2016. Moreover, in updated research that my team will present at the Education Finance Association and the National Policy Conference, the effects of Features of the social and political state Twice Strong in influencing in-person education for Spring 2021. In both studies, COVID-related factors played a secondary role in political factors. Given how these political pressures have previously manifested themselves primarily in personal style, it makes sense to consider other policies such as mask and vaccination mandates.
For example, I am a government employee in Tennessee, where a law was recently passed to prohibit public universities from requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Combined with court decisions, the passage of this law has created an environment of mixed messages and expectations as institutions attempt 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 limitations created by politics here, in my opinion, illustrates myopia.
I agree with Auster that students’ mental health is an important and timely consideration. As a teacher, this topic is at the forefront of my thinking, and I have yet to meet an administrator who is not interested in the problem. As a sociologist, this is an area in which I have researched using both qualitative and quantitative methods. While it is an important concern, Auster fails to provide a broader context for framing the case. Far from college students, since the beginning of the pandemic, more and more younger adults have experienced psychiatric disorders (and this is not a uniquely American issue). With this framing, I’m not confident in her assumption that personal instructions might be able to mitigate these issues (even if only a little bit). This is especially the case if the root cause of the mental disorder is a general adaptation to the new normal of the epidemic – given that recently everything seems so uncertain. Also overlooked are the potential pressures on students who may not feel safe sitting in classrooms, particularly in institutions that cannot enforce vaccinations or hide compliance – and the negative effects of any immediate hubs made because there are too many students or faculty who They contract COVID-19. Again, I think the problem is complex, and the absence of robust data to suggest that in-person coursework can alleviate students’ mental health distress (or cause more distress), suggests this is premature.
As for Oster’s argument that in-person tutoring is better than online tutoring, if we examine this in terms of the epidemic, the data suggests that students did not like the switch, and that learning-related outcomes were weaker. To be fair, the pandemic has forced many instructors who were never trained to teach online or had no experience teaching online to do so — quickly and with limited support. The program in which I am a faculty member at the University of Memphis for Higher Education and Adults is designed to be online, and I have been trained to create positive online environments. Therefore, I have a fair mix of skills and experience to understand what may or may not work using a comprehensive online method. It is extremely difficult to build high-performance, consistently interactive online classes, but it is not impossible. Given that Oster’s example of online teaching consists of “accessing 50 screens on Zoom”, I can see resistance to online instruction. Just reading that bore me – and if teachers find something boring, students will feel it too.
That point of failure is on the teacher. We don’t have to engage in online teaching in this way, teachers don’t need to create discussion boards and have students respond to X number of other students. I use Slack in my courses to encourage a natural conversational dynamic and keep students engaged as if we were actively messaging each other. There are many other tools other than LMS and Zoom that can help bridge the known gaps between online academic results and in-person academic results. While I don’t agree that recent studies generally suggest academic outcomes during the pandemic have been poorer for online education, we also can’t be certain that in-person mentoring is the appropriate option when considering community and student health.
As you’ve likely read, many leaders have noted that COVID-19 is not dangerous to students when compared to, say, the elderly, because cases are generally much milder and students are not more likely to be hospitalized or die. However, that doesn’t mean the risk is zero, as previous research has shown: Resumption of in-person education at colleges was associated with overall per capita increases in boycotts—and thus, putting students and the broader community at greater risk. The above justifications also ignore any potential long-term health effects, which have recently been dubbed “Long Hauler” (also long-term COVID) effects. Accordingly, the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection can 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 PTSD (PTSD) after treatment in the intensive care unit,” according to Chung and colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Omicron strain is more contagious than the Delta strain – including pollinators. Previous reports indicated the presence of the Omicron strain may be It is also considered less risky than delta in terms of hospitalization and death. However, this controversy has not been fully settled, as Deltas are more severe than the original strain and with recent data showing strong increases in per capita hospitalization rates for children and young adults.
However, we know almost nothing about these long-term COVID outcomes. So, the trade-off to help alleviate students’ mental distress is to force students into the classroom, potentially exposing them to easily transmittable pathogens that could lead to long-term health effects, including increased mental distress?
It is still easy to think of a hub for online education as “obsolete” when focusing solely on hospitalization and mortality (for students only) and to ignore these potential long-term outcomes. Examining the wider picture, I’m not sure if the hub is really “old”. As a reminder to readers, many institutions have considered starting the online semester only for a few weeks as the Omicron height flattens. This was not an unreasonable decision to protect students, staff and the wider community given that new cases on January 10, 2022 rose to nearly 1.5 million, with more than 140,000 people hospitalized, and in the 14-day period from January 5 to January 18. The United States saw 10.66 million new cases. Since Oster’s article was published, cases have risen among college students, for example in Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota – where individual institutions are experiencing a very strong rise, such as Dartmouth.
Overall, I think an outstanding Oster Academic has a broad impact. However, her article missed the mark on several points. Given Auster’s widespread influence, her article likely led to misinformation – such as the idea that all institutions could simply enforce (or hide) vaccine mandates and could be used by political entities or electoral blocs to force institutional decisions. Looking at the stats above, I don’t see how decisions to switch online for a few weeks (or longer depending on the attributes of the following variable) to protect the health of students, staff, and the wider community are “obsolete”. I would suggest that such decisions promote the appropriate level of vigilance needed to support universities’ responsibility to students, faculty, staff, and the broader community – which Auster and I agree is critical.