by Laura McCullough, Professor of Physics, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Regardless of what universities are saying right now, I am planning to teach totally online in the fall. I vastly prefer face to face instruction, and I don’t think learning physics is as easy or effective in an online situation. But I am doing course planning for entirely remote instruction nonetheless. Going online is the best choice for students. Here’s why.

Learning Issues

Group Work:

My courses depend heavily on group work. In lectures and labs, students work together on small whiteboards at their tables. Given physical distancing requirements, face to face group work will be impossible for my physics class. Discussion is certainly possible; solving problems and writing down equations is an entirely different issue. This core component of my courses is unavailable. Switching to online discussions with video feeds (so students can see each others’ work) will provide a reasonable substitute.

Lab Equipment:

In most physics lab classes, we use a large amount of equipment. That is why most physics departments have lab managers or other staff to set up and take down the equipment for lab. How will equipment be cleaned when we often have four back-to-back two-hour lab sessions in a day? How much time will be lost to disinfecting? Who will do it? I can’t imagine cleaning every piece of a typical weight set for every class period. I have twelve lab stations, and we lost our lab manager because of budget cuts largely due to COVID-related revenue losses.

Lab Activities:

With physical distancing, we will not be able to safely have students working in pairs in lab, as is usual. Many of our lab activities require two people in close proximity to get them to work. One of the unstated goals of paired lab work is learning to work with others. With group work unavailable, many standard labs unusable, and significant equipment issues, moving to simulation-based labs provides the safest option to give students a chance to work with data.

Limiting attendance:

With classroom capacity being lowered by half or more, one option is to have only a portion of the class attending on a certain day. Last name start with A-G? You’re in person Monday, online Wednesday and Friday. This is unlikely to be significantly better for learning than entirely online, and may in fact be worse. Teachers will need to prepare twice for every class period, once for in-person and once for online, creating a much higher workload for already overloaded teachers. That will inevitably translate to a lower quality experience for the students. By planning to teach online we can allow teachers to focus much more attention on learning best practices for providing online learning experiences.

Learning under stress:

Anyone who has tried to work from home lately, or gone to the grocery store, or even tried reading a book will know that in a pandemic, our mental and emotional resources are reduced, sometimes quite severely. Learning takes a great deal of energy and significant mental and emotional resources. Creating a lower stress environment for students will offer the best learning environment. While learning online has its own set of stressors, I feel strongly that the stress of being physically in a classroom during a pandemic, with all of its uncertainties, will be higher.

Instructor assistance:

During classes, I spend a great deal of time wandering the room, helping where needed. Often I am staring at a student’s notebook, trying to find their error in a page of equations. The same is true with office hours: students sit at my desk and we are hunched over scratch paper or worksheets. I cannot envision how I am to help my student when it is unsafe to get within 6 feet of them. Video office hours are the only thing that makes sense under these conditions.

Behavioral Issues

Mask usage:

We have seen across the country that proper mask wearing has huge non-compliance issues. When students have four or five hours of classes in a row (easy to do with lab courses), are they going to keep the mask on the entire time? What about the diabetic student who needs to eat regularly? Students with classes across the lunch hour regularly bring food to class; how are they to buy food and eat it in a mask while getting to their next class, all in a ten-minute passing period?


Many schools are suggesting students clean their work surface before and/or after each class session. How many bottles of sanitizer will this require? How much class time is lost to this? Who will ensure this is happening?

Mental Health:

Anxiety and depression rates have been increasing quickly for college students even BEFORE the coronavirus pandemic began [1]. Asking students to spend hours in buildings with hundreds of other students, wear masks at all times, and be conscientious about sanitizing will put an additional enormous strain on them. Are the possible learning gains from offering highly modified face to face instruction worth the additional burden on already stressed minds?

Off-campus activities:

If students are back on campus, then they are going to be spending out-of-class time socializing and going to bars. Asking students to not get together with their friends for pizza or movies is a losing proposition. There is no way to enforce this, and we know that students of traditional college age do not make the best decisions for their own safety. Look at STD numbers, or drinking violations.

We need to go online

I realize that universities are trying to offer students the best possible learning environment, but what is “best” right now is not the same as it would normally be. Budgets at many schools have been tight for the last decade, and the loss of tuition will be drastic, if not catastrophic for some. But the loss of money is irrelevant compared to the potential for loss of student lives and long-term health impacts including lung and other organ damage. How many students or employees need to get sick or die before an institution realizes their decision to go to in-person classes is to blame? Where is an acceptable cost in student and staff health and lives? For me that answer is zero.

Universities need to make the decision now to go online for fall 2020, and let students and parents choose for themselves what their best plan will be. By making the decision now, teachers will know what to expect and can use the summer to prepare for the best possible online classes in the fall.

By waiting to make this decision until forced by circumstances, institutions are playing a bait-and-switch game with students and parents. There is no possible way schools can safely open in the fall, not with the trajectory we are currently on with this pandemic. There will be outbreaks at universities if they are open. Don’t raise false hopes; don’t make students move in just to move out two weeks later; don’t pretend we won’t still be in the throes of this health catastrophe in two months. Making the decision now means schools will know what the financial loss will be, and steps can be taken before having to close sections and fire adjuncts ten days into the term.

I plan on teaching online in the fall. And this is why.

1. Lipson SK, Lattie EG, Eisenberg D. Increased Rates of Mental Health Service Utilization by U.S. College Students: 10-Year Population-Level Trends (2007-2017). Psychiatr Serv. 2019;70(1):60-63. doi:10.1176/