The Volokh Conspiracy

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What happens when a professor is unable to finish teaching a class due to COVID-19?

Colleges need to establish continuity of operations plans to deal to ensure minimal disruptions in teaching and grading.


As the saying goes, all professors are mortal. From time to time, faculties will deal with tragedy. Due to various health situations, a professor may be unable to finish a class as planned. Perhaps the situation will last a short time. For example, a professor needs a few weeks to recover from surgery. In such cases, colleagues can cover a few classes. Or, perhaps, the professor can pre-record lectures which the students can watch. Or, in more recent times, the professor can teach a class remotely from home. (Yes, Zoom existed before March 2020). Other situations are permanent. Professors may suddenly be forced to retire. Or Professors may pass away in the middle of a semester, perhaps with little advance notice. In such cases, colleagues will have to teach the remainder of the class–that includes preparing an exam, and grading it.

Over my career, these sorts of tragedies have been quite rare. But going forward, these occurrences may become more common. And these concerns are not limited to universities with in-person or hybrid classes. Even professors who are teaching strictly online classes may still be affected by COVID-19. Colleges need to recognize these eventualities, and establish continuity of operations plans in advance. Administrations should try to ensure minimal disruption in teaching and grading. This post will highlight four factors to consider.

First, no two classes are identical. Every professor teaches a topic in his or her own way. That diversity of thought is ideal. Students should be exposed to as many different types of pedagogy as possible. Indeed, I applaud the standard that 1Ls cannot select their own schedules; they should be given a wide variety of teaching styles, whether they like it or not. But that diversity of approaches creates significant difficulties if a professor is unable to finish the semester.

In such a case, a colleague would be asked to jump in, perhaps in the middle of the semester. A diligent colleague would watch all the lectures to figure out what was taught, and what was not taught. (You cannot take the students' word for it.) And invariably, a thoughtful colleague would recognize that some things were not taught up to her standards, and would want to revisit those areas. (Or more precisely, the former teacher taught things differently that the current teacher would have.) And before you know it, the colleague will decide to reteach much of the class, on top of teaching all the remaining material. That catchup may require additional classes on evenings or weekends. Or, perhaps, the colleague will simply ask the students to watch her prior recordings from this semester, or another semester, to catch up.

The students, no doubt, will get very frustrated, no matter what path is chosen. They will be sympathetic to the fact that their original professor can no longer teach. But that sympathy will quickly give way to the students' sense that the situation is unfair to them. I don't have a magic bullet here. Changing a professor mid-stream creates a very difficult situation for students. Perhaps one ideal approach would be for all professors that teach the same class should synchronize their syllabuses and use the same books. That approach would minimize disruptions. I am skeptical professors could achieve such collective action.

Second, what to do about grades? In most required classes, grades are based on a single final exam. From the beginning of the semester, students prepare for a class with an eye towards the exam. You will prepare your outline one way for an open-book exam and another way for a closed-book exam. If an exam is all multiple choice, you focus on multiple choice questions. If an exam is all essay, you hone your writing skills. And so on.

But what if a professor passes away mid-semester? The replacement colleague would then be put in a tough spot: she cannot possibly write an exam in the exact same fashion the original professor would have. Perhaps the solution is to administer an old exam. That approach has problems. Old exams invariably leak out. (I put all of my exams online, and always write new questions every semester.). Even then, an old exam may involve topics that are no longer covered. (From year to year, most professors revise their syllabuses, and add and remove issues).

Even if the new professor can replicate the style and substance of the old professor's exam, the students will still feel the situation is unfair: a different person is grading it. Every professor has a different internal rubric, and external curve. Some professors are generous, and other professors are not generous.

Indeed, many students will register for a class precisely because it is known as an easy class. Such actions are completely rational. All things being equal, most students will prefer an easy A to a hard B. (I was a masochist in law school, and I deliberately sought out the hardest professors who would challenge me.) To adjust, the new professor may try to replicate the curve her predecessor used. But some students still will not be happy–every curve has a left-tail. And the students will insist they would have done better with their original professor. Prove that counterfactual wrong!

So far I have focused on classes with exam. The dynamics are even more complicated with a "paper" class. Generally in a writing seminar, a professor will work closely with students throughout the semester. She will approve the topic, refine an outline, and read a draft. Students will generally get a sense of their expected grade along the way. There are seldom surprises. But the situation changes when a new professor is asked to grade an already-written paper. Those old expectations would be unsettled.

Perhaps the solution is to give the students an option of pass/fail. That option could be elected before or after the student sees her score. (We considered the pros and cons to both approaches in the spring). A pass/fail option eliminates some unfairness, as a student's GPA would not decrease. But, in theory at least, it could increase.

Third, administrations should adopt a continuity of operations plan before the semester starts. It should be published, so faculty and students know what is expected of them. I think it is a mistake to create ad hoc plans as the situations arise. There is much uncertainty for the fall, but at least we can plan for this sort of eventuality.

Fourth, I raise an issue that should be promptly dismissed: some professors who are asked to cover a colleague's class may seek additional compensation. Get over it. We are living in tough times, and budgets are strapped. Sure, it is a burden and extra work. But  if a colleague becomes ill, or incapacitated, the least we can do is to chip in, and spread the work.