No one understands the desire to get back to normal more than us.
We miss mingling with our fellow humans in restaurants and at social events. We miss major league sports. We miss crowded streets and thriving commercial districts.
But just because we want to get back to normal doesn’t mean we can simply will it into existence.That seems to be the mistake made by the University of Kansas, which has mandated the return of in-person classes for its upcoming semester.
Faculty who aren’t willing to teach such classes have been asked to submit their names for exemptions under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Unfortunately, that requirement has a multitude of problems. The ADA wouldn’t exempt someone who’s a caretaker for an elderly or immunocompromised relative, for instance. And many would feel uncomfortable disclosing to their employer that they have a disability, especially in a context where an institution’s profits may depend on in-person instruction.
KU staff members have pushed back. Fifty-two department chairs have signed a letter protesting the requirements and saying that staff members should be able to teach their classes online if they so choose.
Make no mistake: This is the next frontier in the public opinion battle over COVID-19. We will likely see similar debates play out as the return to K-12 classrooms is sketched in coming weeks. While those attending classes are likely at low risk, that’s not necessarily true of those teaching the classes. And without instructors, no learning can take place.
There are no simple answers here.
In-person instruction has real benefits over online learning. It takes a special kind of person to sit in front a monitor for hour after hour and derive real, solid knowledge. Those paying full price to a university should have the ability, whenever possible, to be there in the flesh.
But instructors shouldn’t have to risk their health to do so. KU should be more willing to grant exemptions, and it should be more willing to change course when events change. After all, the landscape of reopening looked far different three weeks ago than it does today.
We will get through this together — the general public, along with universities and their students. But we are all ill-served by one-size-fits-all solutions. We must be modest and willing to admit when we’ve gone too far or not gone far enough.