Essay Jill Richardson

There Are No Easy Answers for Teaching During a Pandemic

Even though teachers and administrators had the summer to prepare, colleges are still in uncharted territory.
[Joseph O’Connell / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Jill Richardson / OtherWords

In a few weeks, I begin my semester as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate sociology class. I am not sure what to expect.

Last March, when our school sent the students home, everything happened suddenly.

We weren’t sure what time zones our students would be in. We didn’t know if each student had a computer or an internet connection at home. We didn’t know if they would get sick with COVID, or have loved ones who got sick. We didn’t know if they were going home to abusive families, or if financial losses would leave their families without enough to get by.

I was working with a professor and two other teaching assistants. We made the best plan we could to allow for every possible contingency. We switched our curriculum to online and made it “asynchronous,” so students in different time zones would not have to log in at a specific time of day.

Once our class went online, we saw new challenges. Compared to seeing our students in person several times a week, now communication was limited to material we posted online or emails we sent. Did students even read it? Did they have questions?

I tried to imagine what it was like in my students’ shoes.

Even in the best case scenario, they were now dealing with a number of professors and teaching assistants who had just gone online without experience or preparation. For every email I sent, how many other emails were they getting? How did they handle time management now that they no longer had to attend classes at set times?

As we approach the coming semester, our situation is different once again.

My school offers a combination of face-to-face, remote synchronous, and remote asynchronous classes. I’ll be teaching remote and synchronous, and my students are choosing to learn that way when they sign up for my class. This time, I can at least assume that students signing up to learn online at the same time each week have the technology and the availability to do so.

Last semester, we graded students leniently in light of the circumstances they were in. I gave the same feedback that I usually would, but with much higher grades. We attempted to ask for as little as possible from the students while still teaching the curriculum. What should we do this semester?

My point is not that I have the answers, but that nobody does.

In the past few months, we’ve watched many states’ economies start to open back up and then shut down again once COVID cases spiked. Students who begin the semester healthy may not remain so.

Even campuses that begin the semester open may not remain so for long. Already, the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame have had to shut down almost immediately after opening in person due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Educators have had all summer to prepare for the fall, but we’re also still living through a global pandemic. I’ve familiarized myself with online tools and pedagogy, and I am ready and excited to do my job, but I’m also preparing to be adaptive to the needs of my students as we start the semester.

Even after moving online last spring, none of us have been here before. As I see students, teachers, and schools preparing to go back, we should all keep that in mind. There’s no way to perfectly plan this semester beforehand, and we should plan in advance for flexibility and responsiveness to whatever unfolds.

<a href="">Jill Richardson</a>
Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This op-ed was distributed by


  1. 27 children aged 5-14 had died from covid-19 as of August 15, according to the CDC. 135 in this group (of 40 million) died of pneumonia or influenza during the same period. 1000 or so children drown each year, bee stings and peanut allergies kill as many as covid-19.
    94% of victims in Europe and 97% in Australia are over 60 years old. Clearly the aged are the target population for this virus and the Chinese pointed out in February. Belgium and Sweden, with very different approaches, shared disastrous results in nursing homes. Children are relatively resistant, and despite high levels of virus (inactivated?) do not spread the virus easily (results of repeated studies in almost every Asian country, where multi-generational housing dominates).
    Yes, it it the most contagious lethal virus in modern history, but to all but the infirm and elderly (an aged professor, teacher or administrator) covid-19 is a mild flu, the common cold, or asymptomatic. Unless one is geographically isolated or hermetically sealed away from the world, there is an excellent chance you have been exposed or will be shortly. Fortunately there seems to be broad and increasing memory T cell-based immunity in most nations.

    1. So it’s okay for the sick and the elderly to die off?

      I suppose if more people just ate salads ran 3 miles a day everything would be hunky-dory.

      This brand of ‘understanding’ Covid-19 sickens me. It’s reminiscent of mother dogs when they have a litter and one puppy is sick or small or weak, she separates it from the rest of the litter and lets it die. I guess we’re no better than animals after all.

  2. ample evidence has demonstrated that covid is hardly worse than seasonal flu
    nations that rejected covid martial law and where masks are rare enjoy the fewest fatalities—covid dictatorships are plagued by most numerous deaths per capita—NY state, Belgium, Peru, Spain, northern Italy, UK, France
    “amerikans believe anything described as scientific without question: G Gorer
    “both US liberals and conservative equally misuse science” Susan Jacoby

  3. The easy answer is to protect the Vulnerable (mostly the elderly, severe asthmatics, cancer patients, cirrhosis patients, uncontrolled hypertensive patients, uncontrolled diabetes). There should be services shopping for them and otherwise keeping their exposure minimized. The focus on the minimally affected children and healthy young adults is absurd.
    Over half of most countries’ populations are not susceptible to Covid-19 (likely due to common cold memory T cell immunity; possibly due to nutrients, herbs). Of those that are infected, 80% are asymptomatic, or produce mild common cold-like symptoms, or at worse mild flu-like symptoms. If America had even a minimal health care system where expense does not enter into seeking medical help early, and if America (and the West) had ignored the WHO from the start like Asian countries, we would be looking at 600 deaths per million, and rising. It is a surreal failure, edged by our incompetent politicians (and sending Covid-19 infected patients to nursing homes should result in jail time!)

    1. Should be “we would be looking at less than 20 deaths per million (like in SE Asia) not more than 600 deaths per million and rising”

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