Colleges Ask Professors to Return to the Classroom. Their Answer? That’s ‘Reckless.’

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Image: Sam Thomas, The Gainesville Sun
A U. of Florida graduate student participates in a protest this month against the university’s plan to expand in-person classes in the spring.

By Emma Pettit

When the University of Florida, in Gainesville, announced in July that fall-semester classes would be largely online, the daily new-case rate for Covid-19 was hovering between 60,000 and 70,000 nationwide. This week, daily new cases reached more than twice that number. Health experts warn that the country faces a prolonged surge.

But at Florida and other colleges, leaders have signaled to their professors that, come spring, they will be expected to ramp up their in-person instruction.

The reason?

An on-campus learning experience is critical to their students’ success, these institutions say. That success, colleges know, is important for keeping enrollments up. And in some cases, the move appears to come down to politics and money. In his message to campus, Florida’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, said that offering in-person courses was the “best shared opportunity” to protect the university’s budget and employee jobs.

On the behalf of students and “of those whose jobs will be saved,” Fuchs offered his “deep and heartfelt appreciation.”

But instructors at Florida and other institutions are not feeling that appreciation. They point out that the latest spike in Covid-19 cases has dangerously strained hospitals , and that many students are not sticklers for social-distancing. They say the benefits of in-person teaching are not worth putting employees, their families, and others at risk.

Burnout and Anxiety

Faculty members everywhere are already in the midst of one of the most challenging semesters of their careers, and many aren’t eager to embrace face-to-face instruction with a pandemic still raging, even if individual campuses have kept their infection rates low.

For one thing, switching instruction modes again would take considerable work. Burnout, always a problem, has reached a new zenith. In a Chronicle survey last month, underwritten by Fidelity Investments, of 1,122 faculty members at two- and four-year colleges, more than 75 percent said their workload had increased since the start of 2020.

And 68 percent said they would have been either somewhat or very concerned if they’d been required to return to the classroom this semester.

At Virginia Tech, there’s been some “tension” to work through, said Eric K. Kaufman, president of the Faculty Senate. This fall, Virginia Tech’s faculty decided whether courses should be delivered online, in-person, or using a hybrid approach. Only 6 percent of courses were offered in person, and 30 percent were offered in a hybrid format.

But in October, Provost Cyril R. Clarke told the faculty that more face-to-face teaching needed to happen this spring, both to improve the quality and to “underscore the relevancy” of the students’ residential experience. He asked instructors and their department heads to review their course plans and consider whether in-person instruction could “be increased in situations where health-safety risk can be mitigated.”

Faculty members will still make the final decision, in consultation with their chairs, Clarke said in a November message to the faculty. That acknowledgment pleased Kaufman, though he said contingent faculty members were more likely to perceive Clarke’s message as a mandate to be followed, rather than a suggestion to be considered.

At the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the “energy and atmosphere” of campus will be enhanced by having more in-person classes, university leaders told the campus. Faculty are being “encouraged” to provide in-person classes, in the belief that it can be done safely based on the current low infection rates among faculty, staff, and graduate students, a news release says.

But the administration has not pressured faculty members to do so, said Stephen E. Caldwell, chair of the Faculty Senate. He credited the provost, Charles Robinson, a longtime history professor, for working with the faculty closely.

“He knows us because he is us,” Caldwell said, “and that means a lot in this environment.”

Northeastern University took a harder line. In October, the provost told the faculty that they were expected to return to campus in the spring unless they had a medical condition, pregnancy, or disability-related issues, or lived with someone with a medical condition, the student newspaper reported. The university cited “robust testing and extremely low positivity rates” on campus as reasons for the change.

Faculty members, like Brooke Foucault Welles, criticized the policy for, among other reasons, not taking into account care-giving duties in Boston, where schools are largely remote and babysitters are now hard to come by. “There aren’t enough hours in the day for my spouse and I to work full-time jobs outside the house and also care for our children,” Foucault Welles wrote in a well-circulated Twitter thread.

Days later, the university announced it would be more flexible.

Clear Messages From on High

In some states, university-system governing boards have made clear what they prefer. The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia resolved that each campus is to maximize “safe in-person instruction.” Florida’s Board of Governors has said it is “strongly encouraging” state universities to resume as many face-to-face courses and activities “as they can safely do within CDC guidelines.”

That idea aligns with the views of Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, who has previously praised Florida institutions for not going “overboard” and shutting down their campuses, like colleges in other states have done, Politico reported. He also said it’s “incredibly draconian” for institutions to consider expelling students who disobey campus Covid-19 safety rules and attend a party, and he has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate. He’s allowed bars, restaurants, and other businesses to reopen at full capacity, a move heavily criticized by public-health experts. The state death toll as of Thursday afternoon had surpassed 17,000 people.

At the University of Florida, critical faculty members have suspected that the administration was compelled to expand its in-person course offerings by DeSantis, the Republican state legislature, the system’s Board of Governors — most of whom are appointed by the governor — or some mixture of the three. In September, the provost told deans that colleges needed to schedule at least as many in-person sections as they had in the spring of 2020. At the time, David E. Richardson, dean of liberal arts and sciences, told department chairs and directors in an email, “It has been reported that the directive originated from communication to state universities by the SUS Board of Governors.”

Fuchs, through a university spokesman, said in an email that neither DeSantis nor state lawmakers had asked for or required more face-to-face learning. It was his decision, made with the approval of the university’s Board of Trustees. Leaders were also aware of the board of governors’ position and took that into consideration, he said.

At an October faculty meeting, he and the provost, Joseph Glover, explained the university’s reasoning. This year, the university’s core state-budget allocation was cut by 6 percent. There’s a risk, said Fuchs, that if the university does not provide “a full student experience, as we had before Covid,” there could be a bigger reduction, he said. That could spell job losses, he said, as when after the recession that began in 2008-9, the university shed 500 faculty positions over a period of years.

And Fuchs said he was “absolutely convinced” that more in-person courses could be offered safely. “We do expect further surges,” Fuchs said. “But we also believe, as guided by our health experts, that we have the tools to manage those surges and, indeed, to keep our campus safe.”

Faculty members weren’t buying it. The administration’s arguments were “sincere,” said Paul Ortiz, president of the faculty union. “They’re just not persuasive.”

Professors say they are willing to be flexible but object that they have not been invited to participate in the decision.

They’re worried that the university defines a “close contact” as someone who was within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Because students will probably be more than six feet apart inside classrooms, those sites of spread will be overlooked in the contact-tracing process, they say. In response to questions from The Chronicle, the university’s spokesman, Steve Orlando, said students seated six or more feet away from an infected student would “generally not” be considered close contacts. The university does take into account how many cases there are in particular classes and looks for trends. “In other words,” he said in an email, “we trust our system, but we verify that it’s working.”

Some have criticized the university’s plans to install HyFlex technology in classrooms. Teaching online and face to face simultaneously is not a good pedagogical decision for many, they say, especially those in seminar-style courses. Foreign-language department chairs wrote a letter objecting to teaching in person because face masks make foreign-language apprehension more difficult. Glover was not convinced by this argument, the student newspaper reported.

Chief among faculty concerns is the new procedure to request an accommodation. The accommodation request form requires them to disclose their medical condition or conditions. They must also send documentation from their doctor. The form lists conditions that are on the CDC’s website but only those, such as cancer, are classified as putting people “at increased risk” of severe illness from coronavirus. The form doesn’t list conditions like asthma that the CDC says “might” put people at increased risk.

And, according to the form, living with someone who is at increased risk does not constitute an employee disability. Age is not listed, nor is there a section for child-care duties.

Betty Smocovitis, a history of science professor who will soon turn 65 and has been a faculty member for more than three decades, requested to work remotely because she has multiple underlying conditions that, combined with her age, put her at high risk, she said. Her request was denied. She was told by email that “enhanced classroom safeguards,” including KN-95 masks, face shields, and required physical distancing in the classroom, were an appropriate accommodation.

“Why does the university not trust me to determine what mode of teaching is the most pedagogically effective, as well as safe?” Smocovitis said.

Of the at least 181 faculty members who have applied to receive some sort of accommodation so far, 58 were approved to teach remotely. The others will receive those “enhanced classroom safeguards.”

Faculty members and graduate-student workers have been fighting back. They signed a petition, calling the plan “poorly conceived and reckless.” They protested outside the president’s mansion. A graduate student dressed as the Grim Reaper, fake scythe in hand. And the faculty union filed a grievance, as did the faculty union at the University of Central Florida. Union leaders at Florida Atlantic University told the president and provost in a letter that their face-to-face teaching goal “cannot stand.” Professors were unwilling to be “passive victims.”

The message that faculty needs are not a priority “has left a sour taste in a lot of faculty members’ mouths,” said Vincent Edward Oluwole Adejumo, a senior lecturer of African American studies at the University of Florida.

At the October meeting where Fuchs, the Florida president, explained why he felt the need to increase face-to-face learning, he told the faculty that he was concerned about the “potential erosion of our university’s stature — not this year, not this fall, not in the spring, but next academic year.”

That erosion could come in other forms. Alice Freifeld, an associate professor of history, said her request to teach remotely was denied. What does that mean for her future?

She doesn’t know. But whatever happens, at least for the spring semester, she’s not going back to that classroom.

Emma Pettit is a staff reporter at The Chronicle who covers all things faculty. She writes mostly about professors and the strange, funny, sometimes harmful and sometimes hopeful ways they work and live. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaJanePettit, or email her at emma.pettit@chronicle.com.

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