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.