I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle, covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Lessons from the remote spring and summer can improve the academic year to come.

The tide has turned. Remote teaching and other operations will be a fact of life for most colleges this fall — if not completely, then at least partly. Considering the continued spread of Covid-19, that’s likely to be true even for institutions that still say they’re planning in-person instruction, but I’ve said my piece on that already. After the abrupt pivot last March, how can colleges improve the online experience? Could they find ways to replicate the role of the campus as a refuge and resource for many students? What teaching and personnel policies could help instructors and advisers do their jobs better?

The short answer is: There’s plenty that could be done. But it won’t be easy. Still, just being conscious of the missing pieces that can’t be replicated remotely is important. That’s some of what I took away from conversations with seven college administrators and professors during two recent Chronicle events, on the remote institution and on equity in remote education. Following is some of what I heard.

First-generation and low-income students in particular miss the campus as a sanctuary, hub, and place to develop social capital. Sent back home to complete the semester, students “needed quiet,” said Spelman College’s provost, Sharon Davies. “They needed a space to focus.” But countless students, at Spelman and elsewhere, couldn’t get that at home, especially if they were sharing space and computers with siblings or helping out parents suddenly unemployed or fighting the virus. (One of several alarming findings in a recent Ithaka S+R survey of students’ pandemic experiences was that those who became family caregivers struggled with their own mental and physical health.)

Students have also felt cut off from resources like offices or centers that support veteran, LGBTQ, and undocumented populations. And even the best remote services can be inaccessible, given challenges with reliable Wi-Fi and what Enrique Murillo Jr., a professor of education at California State University at San Bernardino, called “device equity.”

Ultimately, as Alison Byerly, president of Lafayette College, put it, technology is probably “the least of the problems” — if (big if) colleges have the money to equip students with laptops and hot spots. What was and will continue to be harder is finding ways to keep students connected to the college and to one other. Being remote makes it harder to know what students need, Byerly said. Intentional outreach is a start.

Recreating the social connections that can keep students from feeling isolated is tough. One admirable model for that is “Virtual FSU,” the online portal Florida State University set up to give students remote access to advising,counseling, telehealth services, and even tools to help groups like fraternities and sororities carry on their social activities. I was also struck by how the California Institute of the Arts converted its Thursday Nights tradition of live performances and exhibitions by students, faculty, and staff members into a virtual showcase, keeping faith with its mission to be a multidisciplinary community of artists.

Many students also used to work on campus — and rely on that income. So colleges have to get creative in that realm, too. Last spring Spelman got some donations that allowed professors to hire students as remote research assistants in data science. Come fall, more colleges may have to scramble to develop new, virtual “campus jobs.”

Many professors still aren’t equipped to deal with students’ needs. That’s an argument for new pandemic-era policies for teaching, tenure, and promotion. After the remote pivot, professors became many students’ main point of contact. Murillo, who heads up an advocacy group for Latino education, said that quickly turned him into an “equity counselor” (his term) for students who didn’t know who else to turn to with questions about academic advising or student aid. Understanding the difficulties many students were facing, he also decided to pare back some assignments and rethink assessments.

It’s not clear to me that colleges need top-down policies on classroom matters like grading, although I imagine a little endorsement of discretion from a provost wouldn’t hurt. The same goes for other advice, like guidelines on holding office hours, as Lafayette has developed.

Into the fall, faculty members will continue to be called upon by their students in the way Murillo described. And they could probably use a bit more cross-training from colleagues in student affairs and other divisions. That would allow a professor, as that point of contact, to be “more holistic as a professional” in dealing with students, said Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

But even more than training, he said, professors need flexibility in their academic obligations because of the pandemic. That’s particularly the case for those early in their careers who are still vying for tenure and promotion while also taking on more mentoring and student support — and in many cases additional obligations and stresses in their own lives. “Teaching and service, really, are what is going to help institutions get through a difficult time,” Davis said, arguing that colleges should change their promotion and tenure policies now to reflect that.

People of color have been especially hard hit by the pandemic and the emotional toll of the national reckoning over racial injustice. Colleges need to be mindful of that, among their own faculty and staff members, noted Davies, the Spelman provost. In some cases, she said, “our equity counselors need equity counselors.”

Campuses are often active in times of national protest, and their continued closure creates a void. Davies, noting Spelman’s long history of involvement in the civil-rights movement, said if the campus weren’t closed, “it would be the site for a tremendous amount of activism.” Amy Hecht, vice president for student affairs at Florida State, said it felt as if the college was “on the sidelines” this spring as people took to the streets.

That wasn’t initially part of my thinking in considering the remote campus, although I was wondering how the divisive presidential race would play out. Now I’m sure some college leaders are just as happy not to have thousands of students converging on campuses as the protest movement grows, statues keep getting toppled, and anger rises over federal actions in some cities (including the injuring of a Lewis & Clark University history professor). And yet clearly this is a moment in history when institutions of higher education could — and still can — promote thoughtful dialogue.

Channeling so much anxiety, exhilaration, and anger virtually will be yet another challenge. But it may be necessary. And better to be thinking of that ahead of time.

P.S. Not everything about staying remote is harder on colleges, or even bad. As I learned, some approaches could be notable improvements, or lead to interesting new paradigms. I’ll highlight some of them in a future newsletter.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks