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I'm teaching a class (face-to-face) at a local university this semester. At the same time, our older son, 18, just left home to attend college in Alabama.

I guess you could say we are both on the front lines in the battle of College vs. COVID.

It's too early to project a winner in this chess game, but we can begin to see how it is playing out.

Here are some early observations.

Our son reports that he spent about 90 minutes in face-to-face classes in his first week at school. Other instructional time has been via Zoom or self-directed learning. One day, Zoom was shut down completely, he said, and another day the Wi-Fi in his dorm was spotty. Even online learning, it seems, is not glitch-free.

Even going to the library to study requires a reservation, he says. For a young man who has never been to college, the experience has been muted, to say the least. Being cooped up in a dorm room most of the time is better than distance learning from home, I guess, but only marginally.

My guess is that this semi-isolation will continue for months at schools that are swimming upstream trying to keep students on campus.

I could sense some disappointment in our son's voice when he called home the other night. Making new friends has been hard, he said, since social opportunities are limited due to distancing rules and cancellation of group activities. Basically, most anything an 18-year-old would consider fun has been shut down because of COVID-19.

Many of his new acquaintances were making plans to go home on the first weekend of the semester, he said, a weekend that in other years would have included a fun freshman retreat.

My experience has been a mixed bag, too. Here is a silver lining: There is plenty of parking available where I teach, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — which has not always been the case.

On the first day of class, I asked the students: "Raise your hand if this is your only face-to-face class." I think every hand but one went up.

There are only 10 in the class, so masks and physical distancing make for a relatively safe environment. There is also a mandatory self-check online for daily symptom screening and a work-area wipe-down ritual at the beginning and end of each class.

Still, when I asked if the students preferred the Zoom or in-person experience, 100% choose the face-to-face — or should I say mask-to-mask — environment.

Zoom is awkward, they say. It's hard to know when to speak up.

I agree. Despite all the hoops we have to jump through, I much prefer the classroom environment.

I will say the mask thing is a little perplexing. I never realized how much feedback during a lecture comes from reading faces. Are the students engaged? Bored? It's hard to tell with masks on.

I always talk about eye contact with the instructor and how it's a good predictor of student achievement. The students who make the most eye contact seem to be the best listeners and, in turn, often earn the best grades.

This is doubly true now.

We will get through this scourge with open hearts and open eyes. Even inching back toward normal in America's classrooms is an important first step.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo
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