"The absenteeism of professors is not a new issue," said Chuck Staben, former president of the University of Idaho and current professor there. "What is a new issue is the scale of what we're potentially facing."
In the face of rising coronavirus cases, the scale of professor absenteeism could be much larger than anything colleges have seen in recent decades.
The devil's arithmetic isn't hard to follow. Some models have predicted over 40 percent of the American public will get COVID-19. Nineteen percent of cases need to be hospitalized, and 6 percent need intensive care. The White House predicts now 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, at best, from the new coronavirus. At least four prominent faculty members already have passed away.
Some academic leaders have begun to ask how to prepare for what seems increasingly inevitable. What happens if professors, on a never-before-seen scale, get too sick to teach? What happens if they die?
Last week Feng Sheng Hu, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sent a memo to faculty members in his college.
"In the coming weeks, it is likely that more cases will emerge in our campus community and our college," Hu said. "For [students'] benefit, it is important that we do everything we can to maintain course continuity now that instruction has moved online for the rest of the semester. With that in mind, we ask you to make contingency plans for how your classes will continue, should you become unavailable to teach for any reason."
Hu suggested arranging for a colleague to step in or planning alternative activities.
After English professor Curtis Perry tweeted about getting the memo, other faculty from institutions in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand chimed in that they had received similar letters, or had sent them out to their teams.
Perry and many others bristled at the requests, both at their euphemistic language along with the idea that professors facing death should be responsible for keeping business running.
"You get an A! And you get an A!" someone joked in the replies.
"I'm dead," another said. "My contract has for sure ended."
Perry clarified that regardless of the tone of the request, he objected to the idea that he could even complete it.
"It is of course reasonable to be concerned about the illness or death of faculty -- I'm just not sure it makes sense to ask faculty themselves to take the lead in setting up contingencies without providing guidelines concerning budgetary support," he said via email. "Am I supposed to ask a grad student to add my class to their portfolio without compensation?"
Even disregarding budgetary concerns, it may be impossible to find instructors who can step in for niche or upper-level courses.
The University of Illinois emphasized that considering the impact of illness is a normal part of business.
"Contingencies for replacement instruction are a standard consideration in our academic operations during a normal semester where face-to-face instruction accounts for the majority of our course delivery," said a university spokesperson via email. "But we realize that some of our standard practices for replacement instruction may not translate when faculty and students are not physically in the same place."
Hu said he was simply asking everyone to do their best in difficult circumstances. "There are various reasons that an instructor may not be able to teach, including an illness and family obligations," he said via email. "We are not telling instructors what specific contingency plans they should make. We want them to do whatever they feel is best for their students and their courses."
Staben, who now teaches biology, cited a few potential options for how to proceed when a professor can't teach, though none are ideal.
There's the substitute model, the class could be frozen or suspended, or students could be given an "instructor incomplete" similar to the incomplete grade they would receive if students were unable to finish a course.
But freezing a course or giving an instructor incomplete may run afoul of current financial aid rules, Staben said. A substitute model could put an incredible burden on a few people in a small department. One other option would be to move a class to asynchronous instruction, but few professors have those resources lined up.
Staben said most institutions are unprepared for a potential crisis, pointing out that while the best continuity of operations plan he's seen, from the University of Washington, asks planners to prepare for staff absenteeism of 25 percent, the college's public academic continuity plan doesn't make the same consideration for faculty.
"If the University of Washington has 10 plumbers and they need to make sure that the plumbing system stays in operation, then the eight plumbers who are left can do that," he said. "But not necessarily in the nuclear physics department."
John Lombardi, former leader at several universities and the author of How Universities Work, said that whether this planning is really necessary still remains to be seen.
"Probably useful to think about this, but probably not useful to construct complicated alternative contingencies covering every imaginable sequence of illness, whether related to the virus or not," he said via email. "Unless we imagine a massive collapse of the university workforce, it's likely best to try and deal with these issues within the context of normal sick leave, normal reallocation of work and similar adjustments."
Higher ed would do well, he said, to spend its time on the problems it's already facing.
Staben said he personally is unprepared for his class to go on without him. Regardless, he feels this is an issue faculty need to grapple with.
"We're responsible for the quality of educational outcomes. We're responsible for the curriculum. We should want to be engaged in ensuring successful completion of that curriculum," he said. "It's not about grades so much as what those students were supposed to learn."
One thing is for certain. At some institutions, the plans are being laid. One can only hope they'll never be needed.