Schrödinger’s Online Class Has Arrived

To protect international students and prevent the spread of COVID, in-person classes will have to be secretly moved online

What’s in the box? Is it an online class? An on-ground class? A blended one? Who knows! Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Yesterday, the United States agency of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced several new rules regarding the legal status of international students who are in the country under F-1 or M-1 visas. In essence, these rules state that if an international student is signed up for exclusively or primarily online classes in the Fall, they have no legal basis to remain in the United States, and will therefore face “removal proceedings” (read: potential deportation).

This policy change could not have come at a worse time. For months universities have been issuing confusing, often self-contradictory messages about whether in-person classes will be offered in the fall. They’ve moved around academic calendars and planned to end semesters early, so that traveling students can’t spread home-grown cases of COVID to their peers in the dorms. They’ve told faculty prepare to teach in all possible modalities: fully online, fully in-person, blended (with some days on campus and some days remote), and fully in-person but with digital live-streaming of course meetings, so that students who are in quarantine for possible COVID can still attend.

Preparing for these contingencies has been grueling and dispiriting, and many instructors have done so knowing that in all likelihood, spikes in coronavirus cases would force them to scrap their plans and teach online halfway through the semester anyway. But recently, with the number of COVID cases on the rise throughout the United States, many universities have begun to face reality and have contemplated moving fall classes entirely online. This was great news. Until the ICE policy dropped.

ICE’s policy change forces universities to decide between exposing all of their students to the massive health risk of in-person course meetings, or losing thousand of international students (and their tuition) by protecting people’s safety and keeping courses online.

The havoc this policy will wreak on the lives of international students cannot be overstated. Many students will be ripped from their homes, forced to abandon their lives in the United States and return to countries that may not even truly be home to them. Others will have to scramble to put together transfer applications at the last possible minute, trying desperately to be admitted to any American university foolhardy enough to still be offering in-person classes in the fall. For those who are forced to leave the country, taking online classes may become impossible due to lack of access to journals, media and software with region-restricted licenses, and unreliable or nonexistent internet connections.

I can think of only one viable response to this policy that could protect students and faculty from COVID while also preventing the mass deportation of around one million international students in the U.S.:

Universities need to lie and say their courses will be happening in person, then hold them online anyway.

This might sound like a farce, but I mean it sincerely. It’s the only way for universities to do right by the students we serve.

In order to protect the legal status of international students and maintain their educational access, a majority of courses need to be offered on campus. But in order to prevent massive spikes in COVID cases throughout the United States, a majority courses need to be offered online. Universities will be financially screwed either way; many are deeply reliant on tuition from international students as a funding source, but having to deal with a sudden campus closure and the deaths of thousands of COVID-infected students is obviously no better.

The only solution is clear: we need to create phantom classes that are offically listed as happening in person, but which never actually meet. Administrators will need to schedule regular meeting times and assign courses to physical classrooms. Universities will need to provide socially distanced housing for all students who need it (particularly international ones), but allow those with alternate living options to stay home. On every bureaucratic level, on-ground education needs to appear to be up and operating. Behind closed doors, students can be privately told by their instructors that classes are fully online.

For months I have been offering to help individual faculty members create phantom classes like these. Many professors been done a massive disservice by their institutions, forced to prepare for in-person and blended courses that they know will be neither tenable nor safe in the fall. The odds are great that no matter what type of course prep they do, they’ll be forced to pivot to an online format at some point in the semester anyway. My advice has been to cut out the middle man, and to create a class that is ostensibly happening in person, but which is actually run online from the very start.

So far only a handful of academics have reached out to express interest in attempting this. I get it: academics are mostly former straight-A students, compulsive rule-followers who behave as though they are constantly being monitored by the powers that be. In reality, the labor of the university-level instructor is largely invisible, frequently overlooked by department chairs who are spread far too thin by a panoply of administrative duties to closely check up on everyone.

It’s pretty easy to exercise academic and instructional freedom when everyone above you is busy and overwhelmed. At most institutions, pulling off this scheme would truly be as easy as letting the course be listed as on-campus, but quickly and privately letting every student know otherwise the second they register. Academia is a place ruled by obfuscation and bureaucratic smokescreens; it’s very easy to break unjust rules within the system by being elusive and communicating through private emails.

I still believe that if an instructor thinks they can get away with this (and I believe most can), they should personally do the work of setting up one of these Schrödinger’s classes. But now, given ICE’s new policy and its devastating implications for international students, I have to suggest that universities themselves get in on the action.

Of course, no school will openly admit they plan to game the system by listing courses as happening on-campus when they’re really going to be held online. But in practice, many schools have been plotting to do exactly that all summer long. For all their talk about revised academic calendars and blended course options, I strongly suspect most University administrators have known for months that a move to an online format in the fall was inevitable. They just had to present in-person classes as a viable option long enough to collect tuition and housing fees. Behind closed doors, the plan has likely always been to move classes online once the money was in the bank.

Now that exact same bureaucratic bait-and-switch can at least be used to save lives. And in order for it to work, all universities have to do is the exact same slight of hand they’ve been doing all summer long: simply say they plan to offer fully in-person classes, but enact that plan as confusingly and inconsistently as possible, making it clear (by virtue of mixed, vague messages) that if faculty were to move courses online in secret, no one would notice.

It’s a pathetic solution befitting an absolutely despair-inducing era. But at this juncture, it’s the only viable way I see to preserve lives and prevent deportations. The era of Shrodinger’s online class has arrived, and we are all being forced to deal with it. I just hope my fellow educators recognize its life-saving potential.

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