Coping with COVID on Campus

by James A. Bacon

In a growing movement, more than 900 college and university professors across Virginia have signed a petition demanding the right to decide whether to teach classes this fall in person or online.

Faculty members also insisted they be allowed to improve all instructional plans for returning to campus, and that adequate safety measure put in place to protect all members of the university community from COVID-19.

The petition comes at a time that university administrators and boards of trustees across Virginia are wrestling with how to resume classes in the fall semester. Last month Governor Ralph Northam issued guidance for reopening higher-ed institutions that cover face coverings, physical distancing in classrooms, limiting visitors to campus, restricting occupancy of shared spaces, and staggering the use of dining facilities.

Among other initiatives, Virginia Tech has developed a comprehensive testing, tracing, and case-management plan. All students will be asked to self-quarantine and wear a face covering for 14 days before arriving on campus. They will be “strongly encouraged” to take a COVID-19 test within five days prior to returning.

The University of Virginia will require all students, faculty and staff to wear face coverings in common spaces. Individuals will be required to maintain six-feet distance from one another in any common-space interaction lasting more than 10 minutes. Dining halls will restrict seating and provide more options for takeout.

Every university across the state is dealing with similar issues — and many faculty members are feeling left out of the decision-making process. States the petition:

Virginia faculty face uncertainty surrounding employment as well as plans for instruction. The limited input faculty have had so far on decisions related to safety, job security, allocation of resources, and academic freedom — including the freedom to teach in the manner faculty deem most effective — is unacceptable. ,,,

Now is the time for our universities and colleges to put people first, and to engage in an open and transparent discussion about university priorities. Faculty must play a central role in the process and need to be involved in that process immediately.

The sentiments seem particularly intense among faculty at James Madison University; 257 professors from that one institution have signed the petition. Other signature counts include:

University of Virginia — 119
George Mason University — 60
Virginia Tech — 58
Mary Washington University — 50
Virginia Commonwealth University — 37
Virginia State University — 22
Old Dominion University — 12
Longwood University — 6
Radford University — 5
Virginia Military Institute — 0
Norfolk State University — 0
University of Virginia-Wise — 0

The petition lists three sets of demands:

  • All faculty members must be allowed to make their own judgments about whether to teach in-person or online courses without having to petition administrators.
  • Faculty must approve all instructional plans for returning to campus. “Appropriate input and review by faculty, including existing faculty bodies, must precede policy changes.”
  • Adequate safety measures must be in place. These include, at minimum, free testing on request and daily reporting regarding new cases on campus. If an on-campus presence is mandated, then an individual’s health costs over and above insurance, including mental health costs, should be fully covered.

Bacon’s bottom line: Some of these demands are not unreasonable. Surely faculty members should have input into instructional plans. And surely institutions should put adequate safety measures in place. Here’s the tricky one: Faculty members want to decide whether to teach in-person classes without having to petition administrators.

No question, institutions should make accommodations for individuals with pre-existing conditions who might be at greater risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus. On the other, administrators are facing a real dilemma: Families are making the decision whether or not to send their kids back to college. The high price point of college attendance is already a big sticking point. If parents are going to pay full freight, they are entitled to expect that their kids will benefit from in-person instruction. Otherwise, what’s the point? Just stay home, enroll in a Phoenix University or Liberty University online course, and save a boatload of money.

If faculty members make their own decisions about how to teach, colleges can’t promise in-person instruction. If colleges can’t promise in-person instruction, a lot of families might decide to punt college attendance this year. If enrollments drop, revenues decline. If revenues decline, colleges must cut costs. Faculty members may not like that so much.

There are no easy answers here. Maybe our higher-education model is broken. Maybe it’s time we totally rethink it. 

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10 responses to “Coping with COVID on Campus

  1. VT will be testing those students living on campus ONLY — about 9,000 or 1/3 of the student body. This means 2/3 of the students roaming campus and sitting in class will NOT be tested… Hmmmmmmm.

    Remember VT’s president wants every student to have at least 1/3 of their classes in person, in rooms, with others — mostly students who have not been tested.

    And what of the profs? Can they be tested weekly to insure they’re not infected to protect themselves and their families? Not from what VT has laid down……. the outbreak will come……

  2. I taught online for half a semester at VCU and for summer school. The feedback I heard from students is that they view online education as “vastly inferior” (direct quote from over 50 students) to in person instruction. Additionally, project oriented courses are difficult enough to deliver in normal times and it is even more difficult to teach and measure collaborative work online.

    As to the “revolt” by professors, at the prospect of having to resume in person instruction, my limited observation is that a very large proportion of professors do not like teaching and interaction with students. A number of my more candid colleagues have said that while they are not afraid of COVID 19, they find online instruction less demanding and are happy to be able to divert energy to other pursuits. It will be interesting to see how the school presidents implement the “shared governance” promises that are made to faculties and rarely acted on.

  3. You do not need to be “in person” to learn. It may not be the preferred method of some but it’s clearly not true as many people already learn online.

    Be that as it may – the narrative that has gone on for some time is that the older people and those with “conditions” should go hide under the bed while the young get the economy back up and running.

    So now, we say that 60 year old professors should be “forced” to teach in-person or else?

    And all these kids on campus, you know, the ones that go to the beach and party hardy without masks or social distancing… professors are supposed to be in the classroom with them?

    And “books”… and libraries? probably all online now, right?

    Dining halls? sports? frat parties?

    The “answer” is not near as simple as some want to believe….

    there is a reality here – and we’re finding out who will deal with it and who doesn’t want to.

    • I don’t think you’re going to be conducting physics labs or chemistry labs outside of actually being there. There is a lot of knowledge gained by physically conducting those experiments vs theoretically conducting them.

      You’re not going to find an online degree tract with any of the physical science classes.

    • “So now, we say that 60 year old professors should be “forced” to teach in-person or else?”

      Pretty much. Times change. There are a lot of jobs where a 60 year old would not be a consideration. Apply to the Marines and find out their appetite for 60 year old recruits. Try to get hired as a new airline pilot.

      Universities should try to make online teaching work to the extent possible. After that … if they have too many older professors relative to demand – guess what? Maybe the younger adjunct professors who have been doing all the teaching will finally get to become full professors.

      I’m surprised the bigger picture isn’t becoming clear. If distance learning works, how many economics professors does Virginia need? 20? The internet knows no scale restrictions regarding distance learning. One excellent microeconomics professor could teach 100,000 students. And why wouldn’t the students want the best microeconomics professor rather than whoever happened to be teaching at their lecture hall on their campus?

      Once upon a time entertainment was always live. No phonographs, no movies, no streaming Netflix. If you wanted to hear music you either learned to play an instrument or went to a place where a band was playing. If you wanted to see a show you went to a playhouse and watched live actors. Cities, villages and towns had concert halls and playhouses. The country was full of professional musicians, actors, etc who generally made pretty limited wages by playing various venues. Then came technology. Bands were recorded on phonographs and performers could be heard across that nation without ever being near the listener. Fewer professional musicians but the winners started to make some real money.

      Now take the next step – public K-12 education. If distance learning works, how many 12th grade history teachers are needed? And why are schools and schoolhouses synonymous? Why not a neighborhood building that houses four schools for local kids with parents deciding which school their child attends? If distance learning works (even if the socialization of congregate learning is important) we can have one building with different teachers from different charter schools teaching in different ways.

      I have a message for the liberals in America’s education systems … be careful what you wish for.

      • re: ” I’m surprised the bigger picture isn’t becoming clear. If distance learning works, how many economics professors does Virginia need?

        but now we’re hearing that it doesn’t work.. so much for MOOC!

        and it’s pretty much bogus – as thousands of people learn online now – all manner of knowledge… this is about what some people want not what doesn’t work.

        re: ” If distance learning works (even if the socialization of congregate learning is important) we can have one building with different teachers from different charter schools teaching in different ways.”

        well, you’d think that the private/non-public/charter schools would have the leg up on this – that they have more flexibility to make changes.

        The problem is the use and sharing of building for congregate gatherings.

        If we believe the science – all of our K-12 schools have effectively had their capacity cut in half.

        But what we are hearing is ” don’t try to confuse us with facts, just open the frigging schools and stop making excuses”.

        Whenever this mess starts to subside – we’re going to have heroes and goats…

  4. I actually signed the group letter because I want to teach in person and am feeling pressure to move to online only. There have been few requests for faculty perspectives and we’re the ones who will be on the line.

    VT faculty were asked to select how we will offer classes, but there was a very short turn-around and no warning the request was to be made. The language seemed to set up conditions under which the risk and responsibility for ensuring safe compliance will be squarely on faculty. Classrooms are hard to obtain in good times and the allowed numbers of people projected made it seem unlikely that sufficient spaces will be available.

    Online instruction done right is far more faculty resource intensive than most recognize. I have been putting far more time than usual into instruction since everything has gone online. Because students can’t do some of the experiential/hands on things virtually, there is a huge challenge for many of us, especially those of us who value learning that way.

    Faculty are still rated by students and ratings for online last spring weren’t so great.

    Shared governance is a core value. It has seemed that faculty have been largely left out of decision making venues and discussions.

    • “Shared governance is a core value. It has seemed that faculty have been largely left out of decision making venues and discussions.”

      I think that sentiment is shared at the high school levels and below in the state, from the teachers whom are in my family. No one wants to make any plans until the district next to them does and even if they do, they aren’t consulting the teachers.

  5. re: save a bunch of money with a cheaper higher ed provider.

    ah… but will the credits “transfer” back when we finally get back to “in-person”.

    Higher Ed is not looking at this at the end. It’s a speed bump to a destination that will be like higher ed was before COVID-19.

    All they really need to do is convince enough would-be attendees to take a pause for a little bit then come back in 2021.

    The higher ed that is really in trouble are the ones that were marginal and hanging on by their thumbs before covid19 – unless some of them get really desperate and make promises like ” all in-person instruction”….

    But again – all of this upheaval flies in the face of those who are saying COVID19 is no big deal for the young… that’s it’s only the older that are “at-risk”. Just not as simple as some think.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Go online and refund the overcharged students and everybody wins. There should be a fair trade for the customers too. Not too worried about professors. Nobody is making them be a college professor. New risks come with the job now.

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