You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • I share the story of a professor who’s spoken out about his experience being sick with Covid-19 in an effort to inform colleges’ conversations about reopening.
  • I pass along professors’ questions about how teaching in person while social distancing would work.
  • I share my colleagues’ recent deep dive into how the pandemic is affecting students’ mental health.

Teaching With Covid-19

Phillip W. Stokes is 36 years old. He eats healthfully and exercises regularly. Even so, when Stokes, an assistant professor of Arabic at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, came down with Covid-19 in mid-March, he got sicker than he had ever been.

His story sheds light on aspects of Covid-19 that haven’t always been front and center in public discussions about reopening campuses. What happens if professors are too sick to teach for a long time? What happens if they infect their students — or visa versa?

Stokes started out with gastrointestinal symptoms but also suffered from fatigue, nausea, headaches, a cough, and pneumonia, as he recounted in a recent column for Knox News. He experienced anxiety and had panic attacks. When I spoke with Stokes last week, nearly two months into his illness, he told me he still gets headaches that make him dizzy. He’s still not breathing normally.

As the pandemic continues, Stokes’s experience highlights some of the challenges colleges will face when professors become infected — whether they’re teaching in person or not.

“Don’t assume that if I get it and I don’t have to go to the hospital,” he says, “that I’ll just be back teaching and everything will be normal.”

Stokes became infected before his university moved courses online, and his initial symptoms didn’t fit the profile of Covid-19 that had been sketched at the time. As a result, he taught the 31 students in his two courses after the onset of symptoms, and informed them when he got a positive Covid-19 test result. “Thankfully,” he says, “none of them ever had any symptoms.”

He also didn’t separate from his family at first, and his two children both ran high fevers, though they recovered quickly.

Because courses then shifted online, Stokes didn’t have to evaluate when it would be safe to return to the classroom. But teaching still proved awfully difficult. When classes resumed online, Stokes tried to teach but felt so winded he couldn’t continue. He emailed students to say he’d have to take some time off, and adjusted the activities they would normally have completed in class so that they could do them without him; for instance, writing out and recording language- practice exercises they would normally complete in small groups, or writing a reflection on a reading and commenting on a couple written by classmates.

Only a handful of other professors teach Arabic; all were busy moving their own courses online, and some were adjunct professors. So Stokes was hesitant to ask a colleague to cover for him.

By the next week, Stokes said, he was eager to give his students a sense of normalcy, so he rallied himself to teach. “The couple of hours that I had to be on Zoom, I summoned whatever energy I had, and focused what I had, and did the best I could,” he says. “And as soon as it ended, I would roll onto the bed and just go to sleep.”

By the fourth week of his illness, Stokes had enough energy to really engage in class, though he shortened his lessons, and he didn’t have the stamina to give students feedback on their work. Only at the very end of the semester did he feel well enough to dedicate the time he usually would to grading and giving comments.

Stokes’s experience with Covid-19 has made him wary of colleges’ plans to hold courses in person come fall. Yes, he’s already gotten the virus — but Stokes doesn’t know how much protection that provides him from possible reinfection. Without a better sense of that, he wrote in his op-ed, he “cannot imagine being comfortable returning to in-person teaching in a normal fashion.”

Stokes has written to the task force working to sort out his university’s plans for the fall. He’s no expert on the virus, Stokes said, but he can speak to the experience of trying to teach while sick from it.

More Worries About the Fall

A number of colleges have sketched out plans for what a return to in-person instruction might look like in the fall, including the safety precautions and social distancing that would be required to make it safe.

There’s no question that students who want — and are paying for — a residential experience won’t get that if college this fall is fully online. But what would their experience be like in person?

Lately, I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like to teach — or take — a course that practiced social distancing. I found this post, by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University (h/t Robin DeRosa), both thought-provoking and bleak.

Barrett-Fox covers a lot of ground: Students’ tendency to break rules meant to keep them safe; professors’ need to find viable child care; campuses’ janitorial capacities. But I was most struck by her description of taking a class:

You sit six feet apart or more. No more sitting around a seminar table. You will be shouting at each other from across a large classroom.

You want a rich discussion. But most students or educators in the U.S. are not acquainted with how to generate that when faces are covered; with time and opportunity, more of us can learn to listen and speak through masks this way, but it’s not our norm.

The point about masks reminded me of a recent tweet from Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who posted a picture of herself wearing one in front of a chalkboard and asked “how do we teach ‘mask-to-mask’ in Fall 2020?” One response mentioned the particular challenges this would pose for professors who are hard of hearing; another asked who would be paying for masks, professors or their colleges?

Colleges, like any other place where people gather, work, and live, have more questions than answers as they try to make these plans. What’s on your mind? Is there an aspect of teaching and learning you think would be especially difficult to manage with social distancing? Tell me at and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

‘No-Nonsense Communication’

For years, colleges have championed the ideas of grit and resilience — qualities that could help students cope with life’s inevitable challenges. How does that hold up in a pandemic? Our colleagues Sarah Brown and Alexander C. Kafka explore that question in this recent article, which wrestles with big questions and shares students’ personal stories. They also describe the messages colleges send to students, and the differences these can make. I was particularly taken by this paragraph, which describes comments made by George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College:

What might be toughest for most students, he and other experts said, is uncertainty and needless confusion. Regular, no-nonsense communication — even if it’s just to say, “Things are still up in the air, but here are the factors we’re monitoring” — is the most constructive approach college leaders can take, Bonanno said.

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