The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

A Typical University Day in the COVID-19 Era.

Students who want to be on campus may find the experience very, very different than they expected.


I am generally skeptical of efforts to resume classes on campus in the fall. I don't think Universities can expect students to strictly conform to social distancing guidance. Nor do I think that Universities have the capacity to plan for a complicated transition in the span of months. But let's say that Universities figure it out, and invite students back to class in the fall. What would that an average day look like? I submit that the learning experience will be very, very different than students expect. Let's sketch a typical school day in the COVID-19 era.

Monday morning. You arrive at school. You are given a temperature check at the front entrance. These devices can be unreliable, and instruments have to be calibrated carefully. If you flunk the temperature check, you will not be allowed in the building, and will have to turn around and go home. Even if you were stuck in rush-hour traffic for an hour. And because you have nowhere to go, and have to drive back home, you will miss your class.  Or maybe you try to watch the lecture on your phone in the parking lot. I hope there is good wifi. Too bad if you took public transit to class–it is not possible to answer a question on the subway. At some point, you will have to notify your professor you were absent because you failed the temperature check–even if you are entirely asymptomatic. Attendance records will be a mess.

Next, you finally enter the building. You'll notice that there are stickers on the floor telling you where you can walk, and in what direction. No, you can't hang out in the law school atrium and chat with friends. The student lounge is closed. And seating in the library will be strictly regulated.

Lockers will likely be unavailable. It is dangerous for people to congregate so closely together, and there are are far too many touch-points. So you will have to cary all your books with you. You may decide to bring a roller-board suitcase to carry around your personal library. That decision may prove problematic when you wish to use an elevator. Due to social distancing, only four people can use the elevator at once–everyone will be asked to stand in a corner, and stare at the wall. The lines for elevators will be quite long during class breaks. And people will have to be spaced six-feet apart on the queue. Schools will encourage students to take the stairs–a tough task for those with all of their textbooks. In addition, one staircase will be designated for going up, and another for going down. Don't use the wrong staircase.

Now you get off the elevator. You'll notice more markings on the floor. Traffic will circulate in the hallway, clockwise only. If you see your friend behind you, you can't stop and turn around to chat. No, you have to keep walking till you get your class. But don't miss it. Otherwise, you will be stuck in a never-ending roundabout, like in National Lampoon's European Vacation. Some schools may even hire hall monitors to ensure that traffic flows correctly. Like in Elementary School.

Perhaps you want to use the bathroom before class. You'll find that half the urinals, toilets, and sinks are blocked off. I hope people don't skip hand-washing because sinks are closed. Historically, I've found lines were quite long at bathrooms between classes. Where will the people queue? Hall monitors may hand out restroom passes to ensure people do not congregate. The hallway has to keep moving in a clockwise fashion.

Finally you get to the classroom. One door on the classroom is marked "Enter" and another "Exit." But don't queue around the "Enter" door. That may disrupt the flow of traffic in the hallway. And don't try to sneak into the "Exit" door. That may get you kicked out of the building. If you wait too long, and block the flow of traffic, you may have to take another lap before everyone can enter. Look, there's Big Ben!

You finally make it into the classroom with your books. But where is everyone? In order to space everyone six-feet apart, half of the section is missing. Yes, even if classes are held in-person, a room that usually seats 90 can only seat about 45. Some law schools may shrink the sections for 1L classes. But for everyone else, a significant share of the class will still be home, watching on Zoom. You see, even if classes are "in person," at least half of your law school experience will still be online. There simply is not enough classroom space to keep everyone in the building at once. With a Monday/Tuesday class, for example, half the class will be in person on Monday, and the other half will be in person on Tuesday.

You sit down. Did I forget to mention you have to wear a face mask? Yes, from the moment you walk in the door, you must wear a mask. Don't forget a mask. You may not be able to buy one. And if you take the mask off, a professor may ask you to leave the building, and not come back for fourteen days. Ditto for walking the wrong way in the hallway. Fourteen days. The school will take no steps to ensure students wear masks outside of school–for example on the bus or at a restaurant. Honor system. But in the building, mask mandates will be strictly enforced.

Before you take out your laptop, you have to wipe down your desk with a sanitizing wipe. You can't be certain how recently the room was cleaned. But don't get up to throw out the wipe. Everyone would rush the garbage cans at the same time! You'll have to keep your trash with you till the end of the day. And do you plug in your laptop? The cord and outlet create additional touch points to clean. And don't even think of sharing your friend's charger if you forget yours.

Next, you try to talk to the person six-feet away from you, but it is difficult–voices are muffled behind masks. The room is eerily silent. The camaraderie and friendship you remember from last semester has simply vanished. You find yourself chatting with the student next to you using the Zoom chat box. It's like you're at home!

A few minutes after class is scheduled to start, the Professor walks in. Do you really think the Professor will amble about while everyone is clogged in the hallway? Nope. The Professor enters, quietly, and doesn't stop to chat with anyone. He walks right to the podium, which is behind a huge piece of plexiglass. Yes, like at the bank or the post office. That plexiglass will ensure there is a physical separation between the professor and the students.

And don't forget that half the class is still on Zoom. The professor may have to turn around to look at the projector–with his back to you–to see everyone. And you are still going to have to watch the Brady-Bunch grid of 40-odd students. Plus, since the screen may be quite far from you, it will be impossible to make out the faces of so many tiny, little squares. If you try to watch Zoom on your own laptop, you will not have enough screen space for your notes. Don't think of bringing a second display!

Class begins, and the professors asks a question. You begin to answer. The professor says "speak up, I can't hear you." You reply, "I'm sorry, it is hard to speak loud with the mask on." And that dialogue repeats over and over. Generally, the professor could walk closer to a low-talking student–I do so all the time. But now, with social distancing, the professor cannot escape his plexiglass fortress of solitude. And don't even think about passing a wireless microphone around the room. Too many touch points. Students sitting in the back of cavernous, empty lecture halls will not be heard. And don't expect students up front to relinquish their cushy seats. Because class participation becomes difficult, professors stop asking questions and start lecturing. (Lectures can be given just as effectively online with Zoom.)

During class, one student gets thirsty. She takes out a bottle of water, removes her mask, and takes a sip. Another student gets hungry, removes his mask, and starts snacking. Particles in the air! Another student starts to sneeze–allergies he says. Yeah right. Another student coughs when water goes down the wrong pipe–excuses. The professor doesn't notice, but students nearby panic. There will then be a class disruption. Perhaps the offending students will be asked to leave–they broke the rules.

Finally, the sterile, artificial, and stilted class draws to a close. Actually it finishes ten minutes early. The school added more time to ensure people can safely exit the classroom. But, there is even less time to learn. Still, everyone rushes for the exit door at once! Maybe students can exit the classroom, row-by-row, like on an airplane!

Generally, after class students would congregate around the podium to asks questions. There is that one thing that needs clarification! Nope. The professors will quickly exit the room–he or she will not wait for the students to clog the exit door. Maybe professors in at-risk groups will have designated elevators?

Can you go up to the professor's office to visit one-on-one? Nope. Office hours will be conducted by Zoom, even if the professor is on campus.

May I remind you that you are expected to wear your mask, nonstop, for about 6 hours at a time? Maybe you go for a walk outside to get some fresh air. In that case, you have to go through the temperature check, and the entire process from scratch. I hope your forehead doesn't get warm after some moderate exercise on a hot, August day.

Can you seek some refuge in the library? It will be tough. Most of the carrells will be blocked off, and reading rooms will be reserved for smaller-sized classes. The stacks will be very congested. Law schools were not designed for this function. Forget about meeting in study groups. There simply will not be enough space on campus to do so.  There's always Starbucks.

At the end of the day, you'll go home. The following day, you will take your classes on Zoom. You will experience the exact same pedagogy from your professor, but will not have to engage in any of these social distancing protocols. Soon, you realize that you would rather learn on Zoom, rather than comply with Draconian half-measures. Maybe your school will let you opt out of in-person classes. Maybe the school will require you to attend half of your classes in-person. Sigh, on Wednesday, the process starts all over again.

Oh, and did I mention that come October, your city issues another Corona lockdown order? The building closes immediately, and all classes finish up on Zoom. At least you couldn't leave anything behind in your locker.

This post was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I hope it conveys a point. Nostalgia for "in-person" classes may distort judgments about what this experience will look like in the fall. Things will not go back to normal. Professors and administrators should explain these dynamics to jittery students, who may demand a service they actually will not like. Learning is tough enough under normal circumstances. These measures will make that process even more difficult.