Biology Department cautions college against in-person instruction this fall

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Graphic by Katherine Irving '22.

Macalester Biology Department

This is the original formatted email sent from Macalester’s Biology Department to campus leaders on Monday, June 15. The department has shared this letter with senior members of the administration, chairs of elected campus-wide committees, chairs of academic departments, the Staff Advisory Council, MCSG student representatives and Biology majors.

Dear Macalester community,

As members of the Biology Department at Macalester College, we recognize these times of tumult, uncertainty, heartbreak and the powerful call to action against anti-Black racism that we are navigating as individuals and within our communities. Our thoughts are with each of you and your loved ones.  We appreciate the enormity of the task underway to bring our Macalester community back together to our shared work of learning and teaching in Fall 2020. We acknowledge the challenges that potentially loom before us should our enrollment and tuition revenue take a severe blow, forcing the college to deplete the critical reserves we need to keep us financially viable. We need to keep doing our work. We recognize that it is important to let our students know that even in this upside-down world, Macalester is here for them to come home to. 

However, we are increasingly troubled and unsettled by the emerging narrative of in-person teaching as a part of hybrid instruction for Fall 2020. Our primary concerns center around what we know of the virus so far, the continually changing landscape of who is ‘at risk’ for Covid-19, and our current understanding that Macalester faculty will not have autonomy over their decisions to teach remotely or in person. To our knowledge students have not yet been surveyed about their willingness/comfort to return to campus in person in the Fall. 

SARS-Cov2 is a highly contagious virus with a reproductive rate greater than one such that one infected person transmits the virus to more than one person. Asymptomatic infected individuals can spread the virus for days, sometimes weeks. “Herd immunity,” in which (60-70% of the population has been exposed or infected,) is still months, possibly years, away. Even with the swift global effort underway to develop a vaccine, the soonest we might possibly have one available is likely mid/late 2021. While the CDC and MDH identify older adults and those with underlying illnesses as at-risk for developing complications from Covid-19 (the disease caused by SARS-Cov2), they do so with the caveat that anyone can get seriously ill. Healthy individuals in their 30s and 40s have died from Covid-related strokes; children and teenagers have developed multi-system inflammatory complications. Moreover, following the SARS-1 epidemic a decade ago, we learned that many infected individuals who recovered from acute coronavirus disease later developed serious chronic illnesses; that may well turn out to be the case with Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous people and communities of color in the United States are bearing the brunt of the pandemic; the Covid-related death rate in Black people is more than twice that of White people. Given all of this, it seems both imprudent and unethical to require medical waivers based on CDC guidelines in order to be able to teach and learn remotely. Everyone should have the autonomy over their own bodies to choose whether or not they return to campus if they can, in fact, be accommodated safely.

So far, we have received no details about how CDC and MDH-recommended health and safety measures to contain the virus will be implemented on our campus. Last week, former President Brian Rosenberg was quoted in an op-ed in the New York Times as saying that compact, close-knit, residential campuses such as ours are “not far behind cruise ships and assisted-living facilities” as ideal theaters of contagion as far as Covid-19 is concerned. To bring students, faculty and staff safely back on campus will require monitoring, testing, contact tracing, isolating the exposed/infected, and controlling traffic in buildings and hallways in academic buildings, residential spaces and offices. Students will need to be housed in single rooms, or in rooms large enough to allow physical distancing, and classes of more than 10 will have to meet in shifts with faculty and students interacting through masks and face shields with a significant portion of their brains tuned toward harm reduction, sanitation protocols, and avoiding physical contact. All of these precautions will require enormous resources, time and effort, and seem nearly impossible to implement given the nature of our campus. And if we do manage to implement them to any substantive extent, our academic experience will be a far cry from the energy and connectivity of the in-person instruction and campus life that we and our students know and love. 

Many among us — students, faculty, staff — are already caring for, and grieving those affected by and lost to Covid-19, while also processing and responding to the local and global civil unrest and uprising. This trauma will be present in our classrooms and on our campus for years to come. Coming back to an unfamiliar physically distant campus with fear of contagion will fuel our individual and collective anxieties. As the coronavirus surges in the fall and winter as several epidemiological models predict, many of us will get sick and spread the virus. Some of us will become seriously ill. Some of us will die. These burdens will likely be disproportionately borne by those already fighting structural and societal violence. Our capacity to provide support for students’ mental health needs was stretched thin before the pandemic, and these demands will likely increase exponentially in the context of the multiple on-going crises we are navigating.

All of this suggests that any in-person instruction that might happen this fall will look very different from our usual practices. It will also be unavoidably contingent upon whatever public health regulations happen to be in place at the time and may need to be abandoned at any point in the semester. Finally, faculty who teach in-person will very likely have students in their courses who are unable to be on campus for a variety of reasons — closed borders, health issues, family needs. We are in fact being told that we should actually plan to teach our courses entirely remotely but then come to campus in the fall to teach portions of them in-person only to students able to attend. These students will necessarily have a different experience from their classmates on campus due to circumstances beyond their control, and faculty will have to prepare in-person as well as remote versions of their course activities and assignments to teach students scattered across time zones.

With these risks of infection, mental health concerns and inequity of student experiences in mind, we suggest that there is a strong case to be made for a fully remote teaching and learning experience in the Fall. Alongside public health considerations, this may also be an effective and equitable pedagogical strategy. Rather than trying to build two different versions of each class they teach, faculty and staff will be able to focus on building creative, inclusive, coherent online learning experiences for our students. In our department and beyond, we see faculty dedicating their precious summer months to focused, intense capacity building for remote instruction that preserves the best and most essential components of a Macalester education. We ourselves are immersed in this work and heartened by the energy our colleagues on campus and across the country are bringing to it. While we would all prefer to teach and learn in the ways familiar to us, we are showing up to educate and equip ourselves for necessary changes. Removing the dangerous and ambiguous possibility of in-person instruction in the fall will allow us to do this work with more focus and better results. Deposits made by over 600 admitted first-year students demonstrate a powerful show of support for our college and the work we do. These newest members of our community are trusting us to do right by them. We should leverage our considerable resources in support of our staff, faculty and students, by creating the best remote teaching and learning experience we possibly can, and make every effort to shelter those students on campus who need to be at Macalester in order to have the resources, space, and time for their intellectual work.

Four years ago, Macalester alumna and Zimbabwean-American actor and playwright Danai Gurira ’01 spoke at Commencement about her Macalester moment — “That singular moment of realization and self-discovery that ..may define who you go on to become and what you go on to contribute.”  That moment took place for Danai when she was away from campus studying away in South Africa. Telling the story of how, later in life, she leaned into the “Macalester inside” her, Danai said: 

“You may not be able to control your environment, but you can always control your atmosphere, placing you in a zone no one can disrupt. Fear and anxiety will come to most of us, but the key is to refuse to let it stop you. Courage, as they say, isn’t about being fearless, it’s about doing it despite the fear.” 

Her words seem prescient in this moment. In this time of tumult, it is important to trust each other’s choices about our own bodies and to trust our work and our purpose enough to believe that we will weather this storm together, and that our community will stand by us. It is scary and complicated to dedicate ourselves to teaching and learning, and taking care of our community remotely in Fall 2020. It is deeply sad to be away from each other at a time of crisis. But it just might be the safest, smartest, most courageous, and most compassionate thing we can do.  

Sincerely,

The Biology Department

*Edit 6/16: An earlier version of this letter used the word “Blacks” to refer to Black people.  The department stated that this was a clear and offensive oversight, and requested that this be changed.

*Edit 6/17: The biology department has issued the following apology statement:

We write on behalf of the Biology Department. We apologize to the Black students, staff, faculty, alumni, and to the larger community for our use of the racist and dehumanizing term “Blacks” in our letter to the community re: Covid-19 preparations. We are deeply sorry for compounding the anti-Black racism that has existed for far too long. We recognize that using this language reflects our own shortcomings and those of our discipline, and highlights the work we must do to engage with racism and confront anti-Blackness in our department, in our discipline, in our college, and in our communities. Going forward, we will continue to contemplate and examine our own deep biases, work hard, and take specific actions to correct them. We would also like to express our gratitude to those who spoke out. Please continue to hold us—and Macalester overall— accountable for making required structural and personal changes. We are grateful to the Mac Weekly for allowing us to correct the offensive language. Our letter was intended to voice our common concerns for the health and safety of all students, faculty and staff and to offer constructive ideas for safe and equitable teaching and learning that could reduce the risks of the pandemic in our communities. We hope that as we acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, we can continue to listen, communicate, deliberate, and mobilize our collective voices and efforts to take care of each other in the face of the formidable challenges before us.

Sincerely, The Biology Department