As COVID-19 cases surged upward in my adopted state of Florida public university faculty returned to the classroom. This Spring semester also saw widespread adoption of the HyFlex model of teaching. In practical terms, a HyFlex class at my university means that the professor teaches class in the classroom to any students who show up in person while the class is live streamed to other students. In some cases, such as my classes, students also have the option to complete the class as an asynchronous online class (watching videos of the class at their convenience).

As might be imagined, teaching a HyFlex class for the first time can be a bit of a challenge. Some classrooms have been upgraded as “Zoom Rooms” featuring HD cameras and other technology. These rooms are relatively easy for HyFlex teaching: you fire up the tech, then teach normally—aside from student’s voices coming from the ceiling speakers and glancing at a display from time to time to see the Zooming students. Some classrooms have been upgraded by attaching basic webcams to the decade old PCs in the rooms. This makes HyFlexing more challenging since you must talk into the webcam while also talking to the students in the room. But all this is manageable for most professors. While this new approach to teaching would have been of concern to some faculty in a normal year, their biggest concern is COVID.

My university has, obviously, adopted various safety protocols. Class size is limited, everyone must wear masks on campus, and decontamination is a regular thing. Students, staff, and faculty also must undergo regular testing and some faculty (those 65 and older) have been vaccinated. But going to campus and interacting does present some risks. Because of this, there have been some faculty in the state who have elected to not return to campus. I am currently teaching three HyFlex classes and one online class, so I am back in the classroom. Interestingly, non-class meetings (like committee meetings) are still all Zoom meetings and gatherings outside of class are still prohibited.

As an ethicist, I have approached this matter from a utilitarian standpoint: the ethics of in person classes is assessed in terms of weighing the harms and benefits. One major factor is, of course, that returning to in person teaching was necessary to avoid funding being cut—as such, we are taking a risk for money. This, obviously, is also subject to moral assessment but does figure significantly in the utilitarian calculation: by returning to the classroom, faculty help keep the schools funded. Another factor is that some students want (or even need) in person classes. As this is being written, I have about 150 students and 2 have shown up in person—but this might change. Other professors report higher numbers (within the limits allowed). But the benefit to in person learners can be offset by possible decline in the quality of education for the Zoom students. While the above-mentioned Zoom rooms do allow professors to teach in a mostly normal manner, teaching to Zoom students from a poorly equipped classroom can make the class worse. We will see how the quality of education is impacted.

The obvious possible harm is that faculty and students can infect each other with the virus. As noted above, the classrooms opened as cases surged—and they are still increasing. Even people who take the virus seriously often suffer from safety fatigue: masking, sanitizing, and keeping distance is tiring. There are, of course, also concerns about people who do not take the virus seriously. Worse, the virus and safety practices were made into a political issue—so rational people must worry about anti-maskers showing up in the classrooms.

While the idea of teaching an in-person class during a pandemic is scary, the objective numbers show that the chance of a professor or student contracting the virus in the classroom is low. But there is still a chance and it can be argued that the risk of serious illness or death outweighs the advantages of in-person classes during a pandemic. There is also the fact that the vaccines are becoming available—so it can be argued that schools should have waited to re-open in the Fall with vaccinated faculty, staff, and students. My own view is that this is what we should have done, and every death and serious illness that can be traced back to classroom is on the hands of those who pushed for the return to in-person classes. That said, I show up for every class.

When faculty complain about being forced back in the classroom, a common counter is to tell them that other people have it far worse. Essential workers and health care professionals have been at significant risk since the start of the pandemic. In general, they had and have the choice between showing up for work or being fired. And they tend to work in conditions that are much riskier than the classroom. For example, grocery store workers can be exposed to hundreds of customers—some of whom refuse to follow the safety protocols. No one is required to get tested before going shopping and efforts at social distancing have largely been abandoned. Medical personnel who work with COVID patients are also clearly at greater risk: while they take precautions, they are repeatedly exposed to infected people.

On the one hand, it seems reasonable to refute the complaints of professors by pointing out that other people have it worse. On the other hand, this sort of reasoning seems like it could be a fallacy. I will call this the “it could be worse fallacy.” This fallacy occurs when concerns, worries or complaints are dismissed by asserting that it could be worse. While the fallacy will almost always be presented informally, it can be given this form:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A expresses concerns or worries about X or complains about X being bad.

Premise 2: But Y is worse than X (Or Person/Group A experiences Y which is worse than X).

Conclusion: X is not bad (A has no grounds for worry, concerns or complaint).

 

This is clearly bad logic. Even if there is something worse than something, it does not follow that the thing is not bad or that there are no grounds for concern or complaint. The following example illustrates this:

 

Premise 1: Sam complains that their spouse regularly beating and abusing them is bad.

Premise 2: But some spouses are killed by their spouse, which is worse than a mere beating.

Conclusion: Sam’s abuse is not bad, and Sam has no grounds for complaint.

 

In the case of complaining faculty, the logic would be this:

 

Premise 1: Faculty are complaining and concerned about the risks of teaching in person.

Premise 2: But other workers face worse risks from the virus.

Conclusion: Faculty have no grounds for complaint and concern.

 

This is, obviously, the same bad logic as the previous example. While it is true that others do have it worse, it does not follow that what is less bad is not still bad or merits complaint or concern. It is, however, important to note that there can be reasonable assessments that do rationally show that complaints, concerns, or worries are not well-founded or are overblown.  In the case of faculty returning to the classroom, it would be reasonable to assess the chances of infection and the likely consequences and then match those to the claims and worries of the faculty to see if their assessment is correct. As with all judgments of risk and harm, people will have different assessments—but this can still be done in a reasonable manner. The most reasonable assessment of the risk of teaching in person might show that faculty worries are overblown but a mere comparison to something worse would not do this.

A related type of bad reasoning is the “you are lucky…” This technique involves “refuting” a complaint, concern or claim by asserting that the person or group is lucky to not face something worse. This works essentially the same way as the above fallacy since the idea is that the possibility of something worse refutes complaints and claims. It has the following structure:

 

Premise 1: Person/Group A expresses concerns or worries about X or complains about X being bad.

Premise 2: It is claimed that A is lucky because Y is worse than X.

Conclusion: X is not bad (A has no grounds for worry, concerns or complaint).

 

The problem with the “reasoning” is shown by this example:

 

Premise 1: Sam complains that their spouse regularly beating and abusing them is bad.

Premise 2: Sam is lucky that their spouse did not kill them.

Conclusion: Sam’s abuse is not bad, and Sam has no grounds for complaint.

 

In the case of complaining faculty, the logic would be this:

 

Premise 1: Faculty are complaining and concerned about the risks of teaching in person.

Premise 2: But faculty are lucky they are not working a riskier job (and lucky they have a job).

Conclusion: Faculty have no grounds for complaint and concern.

As with the previous fallacy, it can be reasonably argued that a person or group is “lucky”—that is, their complaints, concerns and claims that something is bad have no merit. In the case of faculty complaining about the risks, if it could be shown that the risk does not warrant their concern or complaints, then they would be refuted. But simply saying they are lucky that things are not worse for them is not a refutation.

 

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