Universities Need to Catch Up to the Post-vaccine Reality

Remote learning hurts students.

A man walks past Langson Library, at UC Irvine.
Paul Bersebach / Orange County Register / Getty

Updated at 9:05 p.m. ET on January 5, 2022.

Many universities have announced a pivot to remote learning for at least part of January, among them UCLA, Columbia, Duke, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan State. The list goes on.

This move—in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant—feels like a return to March 2020, when virtually all U.S. universities closed for in-person learning, sending students home for spring break and telling them not to come back. At that point, keeping students away from campus was reasonable. Now, however, this decision is a mistake. It reflects an outmoded level of caution. And it represents a failure of universities to protect their students’ interests.

Even before vaccines, most college students were at low risk for serious illness from COVID. The people around them, however, were not necessarily. Few Americans had acquired natural immunity. The specter of a student outbreak spreading to higher-risk staff and into the community was very real.

When vaccines arrived, universities were out in front in mandating them for students, faculty, and staff. Within the past few weeks, many have also mandated booster shots. Beyond campuses, moreover, vaccines and boosters have been freely, widely available for many months. Anyone who has not been vaccinated at this point is making a conscious choice.

The world has changed. Yet the rise of the Omicron variant and the ensuing spike in COVID cases have led many university administrators to articulate the same old concerns: Students could possibly spread the virus to community members, who could in turn end up in hospitals, which could be overwhelmed. Such a chain reaction is of course possible, but the probabilities are not what they used to be, because the great majority of students are now vaccinated and the percentage of people in the surrounding communities who are at risk of landing in the hospital is much, much smaller than it used to be. (The vulnerable population includes those who are unvaccinated by choice and those who are immunocompromised.)

From some corners, this concern for the surrounding community will be met with applause. In my view, however, it ignores the primary group that a university serves: its students. Moving to remote schooling when the conditions on the ground have changed so dramatically is an abdication of universities’ responsibility to educate students and protect all aspects of their health.

College students are in the midst of a mental-health crisis. Surveys show rising anxiety and depression in this population, including suicidal thoughts. One survey reported that 95 percent of college students have experienced at least one mental-health issue during the pandemic. Not all of these problems are driven by remote schooling, of course, but the top issue cited in that survey was loneliness and isolation, and it’s difficult not to make the connection.

Measuring learning losses at the college level is more difficult than at the K–12 level, where they have been substantial. But if you ask virtually any faculty member, they will tell you that while some students do fine and some courses port well to an online format, many do not. Getting through to 50 screens on Zoom is far more challenging than to 50 people sitting in front of you. Students may struggle to focus on even the best lecture in the world if that lecture is on their computer.

I’m a professor at Brown University, which last academic year moved many classes online. Unlike some of our peer institutions, however, Brown did allow faculty to teach smaller classes in person if they chose. I took that option in the spring. My class of 19 was mostly seniors, who in another universe would have been celebrating their way through their final semester of college. Many of them told me that attending my class was the only time they left their apartment other than to get tested for COVID.

I don’t know if universities were right to go largely or fully remote in 2020. The world before vaccines was a different one, and the choices were difficult. I am certain, though, that moving to remote instruction is the wrong choice now. Universities do have a responsibility to the wider community. They can fulfill this responsibility through mandating vaccines and boosters for their students and employees. They can provide other help to the community as well through testing capacity or vaccine clinics, or even by encouraging students to assist with the child-care-staffing crisis or by providing expertise in public-health guidance.

But universities also have a responsibility to their students. And this is not just a minor responsibility; it is their core responsibility. Parents entrust their children to universities. Many professors—myself included—have looked those parents in the eye and told them a version of I will watch out for your child. We have a responsibility to follow through on this now. We can do it very simply: by letting them go to school.

A couple of weeks ago, Brown announced we would be back in January, in person, as planned. This wasn’t a decision the administrators took lightly, I am sure. But it was the right one. I’ll be back in the classroom, with my students, where they belong.