Some might say that I am the quintessential academic who should teach online or perhaps retire at this historic and worrisome juncture. I am 66-years old who recently underwent surgery for early melanoma and was hospitalized six months ago with sepsis, a serious bacterial infection.
As a pediatrician and infectious disease epidemiologist, I, of all people, should know the risks.
And I do. So why am I planning to return to teaching when (as of this writing) limited face-to-face classroom instruction resumes at Yale in August?
I offer the following three reasons:
Managing risk: Yale is mandating 6-foot physical distancing in all classrooms, public events, dining halls and other common areas. Faculty, staff and students must wear face masks in these venues. Additional protection is mandated for “close-in” work, when instructors must oversee projects with students in proximity. Heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems are being retooled to optimize filters and increase the intake of outside air. Plans for aggressive testing, contact tracing and self-monitoring for symptoms are in place. Education about risk reduction will be required.
Do I think this makes it safe for me to teach? Absolutely yes! My odds of acquiring the virus (SARS-CoV-2) are exceedingly low if my students and colleagues adhere to these guidelines. And I will help them adhere when necessary with gentle reminders and friendly advocacy.
Avoiding risk: When street protests emerged against police violence and systemic racism, I wanted to join them. A veteran of demonstrations against the Vietnam War, against the “Contras” war in Nicaragua, and opposing civil rights violations, I feel that such protest is my patriotic duty. But I have not joined the recent racial justice marches because of my potential vulnerability and the risks associated with not being able to adhere to public health guidelines on physical distancing, crowd sizes and mingling with people who may not be using masks. That younger, less vulnerable individuals chose to accept those risks to further the cause both worried and inspired me. It is easy to understand what compelled them to march in the face of the systemic racism dramatized by the deaths of Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Andres Guardado, Elijah McClain, and countless others over the centuries.
Except for persons who are essential workers or in caretaking roles, we can avoid risk when the risk cannot be managed.
Meeting my responsibilities: As a physician, I took an oath to provide care to all of my patients, regardless of their condition or illness. But as a teacher, one does not sign up for this level of risk. Still, teachers in pre-school, K-12, or university and technical colleges are aiding their students as essential workers. I see teaching in the COVID-19 era as merely a variation on this theme of academic service.
Is in-class teaching important for students? Is the quality of education enhanced in the classroom environment? Can teaching be an inspiring symbol of commitment and courage for students amidst this pandemic? Can in-class teaching normalize life for parents who must return to work (or look for work)? One can answer with a resounding “Yes!” to all of the above. Thinking about the situation this way helps motivate me – and hopefully can motivate other teachers as well — to return to the classroom with joy, pride, enthusiasm, and caution.
In the end, these are deeply personal decisions that every teacher must make. Some of us are more vulnerable and may wish to retire because the magnitude of risk and anxiety associated with the current climate. Some should teach via video conferencing because their schools cannot or will not protect them the way that my university is preparing to protect me.
Our federal government should provide relief for schools that must reduce class sizes and also help hire new teachers to enforce physical distancing. There are over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States today, and over 135,000 schools in the K-12 age range. Many lack the capacity to fully protect their faculty. If teachers and school administrations get more support to manage or avoid risks, we can meet our responsibilities to return to our classrooms this fall.
As an educator, I proudly look forward to rejoining my clinical and public health colleagues in earning a heart-shaped “Thank You” sign left anonymously at our school during the pandemic’s height. We teachers can do our parts to meet our communities’ needs during the COVID-19 era. I am eager to welcome my students back.
Sten H. Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., is dean of the Yale School of Public Health.