I’m a Teacher—Here’s Why I Won’t Go Back to School When It Reopens

A college professor explains why online learning can benefit both teachers and students—and it’s not just about staying safe during the pandemic.

Teaching is my life. I’m a professor of communication, and I have been teaching at a college level for 28 years. My favorite part of my job is getting to see and mentor my students, becoming a part of their lives. I love guiding young adults in growing and learning new things and helping older students rediscover themselves or find a new passion. I love seeing the “light bulb” moments that inevitably happen. It’s a great privilege to play that role in someone’s life. But I won’t be there for all those little moments in the near future, as I won’t be returning to teach in the fall—at least not in person. I’ve chosen to teach 100 percent online for the upcoming semester.

This is a matter of life and death

My reasons are mainly due to concerns about COVID-19. My husband and I are both in our 50s, and I have a compromised immune system. Getting the coronavirus would likely be very hard on us and possibly even fatal. Going back to school in person presents two big problems for me. First, due to asymptomatic spread, it’s nearly impossible to know who has it. A lot of college-aged students feel like they are immune to the virus and don’t always take precautions to avoid spreading it. The other issue for me is that we don’t yet know the long-term effects of the virus. So, even if I got it and did survive it, would I end up with long-term health problems? Given that we are talking about life, death, or possible serious long-term consequences to my most vital internal organs, I don’t see any reason to put myself in risky situations.

I am very fortunate that my college takes seriously any concerns faculty have about returning in the fall, and so we are not having to fight to protect ourselves. School administrators gave us a set of options, including in-person teaching, online teaching, or a blend of both, and allowed each teacher to make the decision that works best for their situation. They’ve given us full access to school resources so that classes will be successful in either format. Our librarians and instructional-technology people are bending over backwards to help everyone do their best, and it’s been a true team effort as we all navigate these uncertain times.

Students benefit from online school, too

I’m not the only one who can benefit from staying home. The more people who stay home, the better we can control the spread of the virus. I also recently wrote a blog post about why it’s a good idea for students to consider going all online instead of taking a gap year. Online classes do not have to be substandard, and students can still get the excellent education they want without physically being in a classroom.

Online courses can offer surprising learning opportunities

Remote classes can actually offer some unique learning opportunities for students. We live in a very connected society, and online communication skills are integral to succeeding personally and professionally. On top of providing the same educational information, online education, when created carefully, can help students with critical thinking, written and oral communication, collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, technological competence and literacy, understanding diversity, inclusivity, and equality, understanding globalization, agility and flexibility in thinking and actions, tactfulness, and time management.

And that’s just the beginning! Employers these days are specifically looking for people who demonstrate a strong work ethic, self-discipline, strategic planning and prioritization skills, risk taking, comfort in dealing with ambiguity, good judgment, and the ability to adapt to changing contexts. These are all things we practice extensively in online courses. This pandemic, and how we adapt to it, gives us educators a unique way to encourage flexibility, agility, and problem-solving skills that students will use long after they graduate.

This isn’t an all-or-nothing decision

The rhetoric surrounding the decision to go back or not has implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) created a false dilemma—you can either go back and put your health at risk or you can take courses online and have a substandard semester. I don’t think those are the only two options. I believe it’s fully possible to get as good of an education experience online, and that it can even be better in some ways.

While going online can’t replace living on campus and all that is fun and fulfilling about being in that setting, students don’t have to risk their health to get a good education in the fall semester. Similarly, as a faculty member, being online can’t replace the wonderful experiences I have in a classroom with my students, but we can all still learn a great deal and build important relationships.

Yes, I chose to teach online in the fall because I fear illness and because I don’t want to play a role in further spreading this virus. But I also choose to take this as an opportunity to make sure that students are able to learn from this very specific context, which will also give them unique communication and critical-thinking skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

I strongly encourage teachers, students, and their families to think differently about online courses in the fall. There’s no “right” answer for everyone, but there are a lot of positive aspects of online education. There is a lot we can’t control right now, and things are changing in some uncomfortable ways, which is why it’s more important than ever to work together and find the silver lining in this situation. I hope things will not always be this way; I would like to return to in-person teaching eventually. But right now, our priority has to be health and safety.

E. Michele Ramsey, PhD, is an associate professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and Women’s Studies at Penn State Berks in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is the co-author of Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.