How Is Everyone Feeling About Returning To In-person Classes?

May 20, 2020
John Wark

As I write this, we’re in the second week of Nashville’s Phase 1 for reopening. If all goes well, Nashville should start Phase 2 next week, but we’re still a few days away from the formal announcement as to whether that will happen or not.

In some of the surrounding counties, the reopening is already underway. Yet the reopening seems to be moving somewhat slowly. Even where dining rooms are permitted to be open at 50% capacity, a lot of restaurants are sticking to carryout/curbside pickup operations rather than opening up their dining rooms. It seems we’re all trying to feel our way forward and gauge what we feel is safe for us and our families.

While it’s pretty obvious that we’re all fed up with being locked down by the coronavirus, it’s much less clear how fast we’re all going to feel comfortable putting ourselves back into close contact with lots of other people. We’re still learning new things about the coronavirus every week, some of those new things contradicting the new thing from a couple of weeks prior. So it’s not surprising that given the continuing uncertainty that most of us seem to be unclear how best to proceed. And some of us, those in high risk groups, know that it’s still not safe for us to leave isolation and we don’t know when it might be. 

Given all this uncertainty, how does NSS decide when and how to reopen? How do we judge when it’s safe to ask 30 people to sit shoulder to shoulder in a classroom for six or seven hours a day? One important factor is how ready are students to return - how safe do they feel it will be, how confident or cautious are they feeling based on what they know right now, what constraints might block them from returning (e.g. child care, being in a high risk group, etc.). No matter what the CDC says on any given day, no matter what the state or local government says, the attitudes and beliefs of our students and staff end up governing to a very large degree whether anyone is going to show up even if we declare that we’re reopening. 

To help us measure attitudes and sentiment, we took the first surveys of continuing students and of all staff last week (the week of May 11). We plan to continue surveying every two weeks for at least the next couple of months so that we can track how attitudes are shifting over time as more information becomes available and as the lockdown in other parts of our lives starts to end. Since we have already announced that our classes will be online through the end of June, the survey asked how ready people thought they would be to return in July. 

Here’s what we learned about how people are feeling:

  1. On the question of how students feel about being in-person in July in small groups (i.e. no full class sessions in a single classroom), student sentiment was maybe ⅔  positive vs. 1/3 negative. 
  2. On the question of being back in-person in July with full classes in the classroom (i.e. returning to our pre-coronavirus “normal”), student sentiment was closer to 50/50, with more negative concerns surfacing, particularly among full-time day students.

We also learned that among the students whose sentiment was negative there are many with blocking factors that will prevent them from coming back in-person, such as being a member of a high-risk group, having a spouse or family member in a high-risk group, family members who get exposed regularly to coronavirus because they are a healthcare provider, lack of child care since schools and child care facilities are closed, etc. Until these types of issues become less pressing for people, it’s hard to see how we can return to full-time in-person operation. 

We also learned that negative sentiment about trying to return to full-time in-person operation was even more prevalent among our instructors and staff. Many of the same concerns as we saw among students, albeit more heightened. And some of the same blocking issues relating to higher risk factors for the coronavirus on the part of staff members or their immediate family. 

Based on what we see in this first survey, it doesn’t appear that we are likely to make many changes in July to how we’re operating now. Until more data becomes available and/or until people get more comfortable with the risks (or lack thereof) associated with being back in close quarters with groups of people it’s going to be hard to make the case for it being safe for our student population and our team to be back together, at least in a full classroom setting. It also suggests that some form of hybrid mix of online and in-person might be an interim step we could take. We don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’re working on it. 

In the meantime we’ll keep preparing our students with the skills they need to successfully launch a career - even if we can’t be with them while we’re doing it. This week we started a new web development cohort and will graduate another. In June, we’ll graduate cohorts of data scientists, software developers, and data analysts. In July, we’ll start three new cohorts. There are still lots of talented folks that want and need a new career and Nashville employers still need more digital problem-solving talent and we’re going to be here to help bridge that gap.