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Looking for the Remote

Reopening plans in many new coronavirus hot spots were drafted before cases surged. Faculty members in those states want a do-over, in the form of an all-online fall or at least a delayed opening.

July 31, 2020
 
Rice University
Rice University has started welcoming students back to campus despite surging COVID-19 numbers in Texas.

With T-minus one month until fall, faculty groups in new coronavirus hot spots are asking their institutions to go all in on remote instruction. Some institutions in one-time virus hot spots are also facing challenges getting their instructors to teach in person.

Perhaps nowhere is faculty anxiety greater than in Florida, which set -- and broke -- new state records for single-day coronavirus deaths this week. Intensive care units at hospitals there are reportedly close to capacity.

California set its own dismal record this week, too, but colleges and universities there have been much quicker to cancel in-person instruction. Florida, by contrast, has allowed state colleges and universities to come up with their own plans for fall. The individual campus plans fall along a spectrum, from mostly remote to mostly in-person courses.

Florida

Whatever they entail, the plans were drafted weeks before Florida case numbers began to surge. Most institutions have not meaningfully changed course in the interim.

“As of today, someone is dying every six minutes in Florida” from COVID-19, said Jaffar Ali Shahul Hameed, associate professor of math at Florida Gulf Coast University and vice president of the statewide faculty union, the United Faculty of Florida. “Students are concerned. Faculty are concerned. In our opinion, one life lost is too many.”

At the urging of many of its members, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association-affiliated union this week asked Governor Ron DeSantis to mandate a remote fall -- similar to what he did this spring, when case counts were still low in Florida. Professors from various campuses shared their concerns in a press conference, and the union sent a formal letter to the governor.

“Here is our most grave concern: the death rate for the college-age population is estimated to be about 0.2 percent, and the hospitalization rate is estimated to be 2.5 percent (per May 2020 data -- it may be higher now),” the union wrote in its letter to DeSantis. “As our 40 public institutions of higher education in Florida serve about 1 million students, are we willing to risk the deaths of 2,000 students, and willing to hospitalize 25,000 more? Are you willing to risk their futures? And what about the more mature faculty, staff, and administrators whose mortality rate is even higher?”

The letter to DeSantis also asks questions about holes in many campus safety plans, such as what exactly happens after an infected student attends classes, or if a faculty member or graduate teaching assistant gets sick. How will those classes be managed going forward? The union also warned of lawsuits.

Shahul Hameed also said that Florida has attributed the rise in cases there to young people, including asymptomatic carriers. So he asked how bringing a large share of Florida’s one million public college and university students back to campus, in close quarters, made sense.

Karen Morian, union president and a professor of humanities at Florida State College, said that beyond public health, the union doesn’t want to see Florida’s colleges open for in-person classes only to abruptly transition to online again, as they did in March.

“That was really hard for faculty and harmful for students,” Morian said of the disruption. “We’d rather have a remote semester than have an outbreak on campus.”

The State University System of Florida's Board of Governors has said that colleges and universities’ plans are “agile” and founded in the “health and welfare” of all campus groups. DeSantis has not responded to the faculty union.

Florida State University, one of the state system's biggest campuses, said this week that it still plans to open on Aug. 24 with a mix of face-to-face and remote instruction, based on a plan "designed to adapt to changing health conditions as necessary."

Texas and Arizona

Texas is another coronavirus hot spot moving forward with planned face-to-face fall instruction. The state doesn’t have faculty unions, but the statewide Texas Faculty Association this week called on Governor Greg Abbott to delay in-person college and university start dates until Sept. 8. The advocacy group seeks to give colleges and universities more time to plan for a safe reopening. The association didn’t immediately hear back from Abbott, even as this week brought another bleak warning of an in-person fall: the University of Texas at Austin topped The New York Times list of college-linked coronavirus cases, at 449. The University of Central Florida came in second, at 438 cases.

Texas A&M University at College Station came in fourth on the Times list, after the University of Georgia. Kelly Brown, a spokesperson at A&M, said that the current plan is for in-person instruction, with an online option available to most students. The university has a mandatory face-covering policy and installed Plexiglas between professors and students, among other safety measures.

Also in Texas, Rice University, a private institution in Houston, already welcomed its first group of new undergraduate students to campus. Masks and social distancing are a must around campus, and students will generally have the option of attending classes either in person or online. About 20 percent of undergraduates said they want to attend all classes remotely, according to information from Rice.

In Arizona, which also is seeing record COVID-19 deaths to date, the Coalition for Academic Justice at the University of Arizona delivered a letter to the central administration, asking it to “empower viral pandemic experts to develop and make public a realistic, compassionate and comprehensive plan that centers our land grant mission of education, research, and service to the community.”

The faculty, graduate student and staff group's letter says that Arizona's latest fall plan misses the mark on certain public health guidelines, and that it sets too high a target for the share of courses delivered face-to-face, at 50 percent. Professors say these factors, coupled with students living in dormitories where it's harder to enforce social distancing behaviors and hygiene, make for too much risk.

“With a few specific exceptions, everyone should work and study remotely: for their own safety, for the safety of our UA community, and for the safety of our families and our neighbors,” the coalition’s letter states.

President Robert C. Robbins acknowledged the letter briefly in a news conference Thursday, saying that the university's plan foregrounds safety. The coalition later said that Robbins revealed little to allay its concerns.

Even where infection rates are falling, institutions are having trouble convincing faculty members to teach in person -- perhaps because they remember living through rising case numbers up close.

Where They've Seen It Before

The American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty union at Temple University on Thursday held a news conference asking the university to “embrace an ethic centered on care, equity, transparency and sound public health policy.” The union said its members voted to demand that all work be done remotely “in order to avoid illness and fatalities among our members, the campus community and the surrounding North Philadelphia communities.”

The university in a statement challenged the representativeness of the union’s vote and said that its approach to the fall semester has been “comprehensive and caring” and guided by input from the Faculty Senate.

“We’re not forcing anybody to come to work,” said Ray Betzner, university spokesperson. “If they’ve got an issue, we work with them.”

Columbia University, in the former coronavirus epicenter of New York, has promised that faculty members will teach in person in the fall on a voluntary basis only. But the university is having trouble finding enough professors to teach the students who say they’ll attend face-to-face classes.

Amy E. Hungerford, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently emailed professors “calling for your help to mount a more robust offering of in-person or hybrid courses to meet important student needs.”

In professors’ initial course submissions for the fall, Hungerford said, “We found that the vast majority of faculty and instructors elected to teach online only.” Yet the “provost and many deans had expected that faculty would be eager to return to the classroom if they did not have health or childcare considerations.”

Some have criticized Hungerford’s letter as trying to shame faculty into classroom teaching before it's truly safe. The university declined to comment on the letter on the record.

Linking the need for more in-class instructors to robust course offerings and the new uncertainty for international students studying remotely, Hungerford also wrote that the “individual choices that we all make about teaching go to the heart of our collective mission.”

As long as “conditions in the world allow,” she said, “we will be able to use our campus as it was intended -- for teaching and research -- under strictly observed health and safety protocols. We invite you to explore, experiment, and adapt alongside the students who will soon be arriving to join us in this historic year at Columbia.”

In pushing for a remote fall, the Temple faculty union cited an op-ed in the Times by one of its own members, Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology, who studies adolescents. Steinberg wrote in the piece that he'd requested to teach remotely this fall, as he had little faith in students' ability to social distance seriously over time, based on his own research.

Risky Business

It's "hard to think of an age during which risky behavior is more common and harder to deter than between 18 and 24, and people in this age group make up about three-fourths of full-time American undergraduates," Steinberg wrote. "My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out. By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands." And they'll do all those other things that college students do, he added.

Steinberg said Thursday that his request to teach remotely has been granted. Echoing the concerns of professors and experts elsewhere, he said that while his university's plan emphasizes classroom conditions, he worries about residential life.

"I’m skeptical, especially given what we are seeing now with respect to young adults’ behavior, that students will follow these rules and recommendations consistently or for very long" outside of class, he said. "As some people have said, a college campus is like a cruise ship with respect to opportunities to transmit or be exposed to the virus."

Whether everyone should be remote is a "tough question," however, Steinberg said, as it "depends somewhat on the institution."

Some very small, selective, private colleges "might be able to pull this off," he said. "But whether these sorts of plans will be successful at a large, public university is a different matter."

That said, "There are many dimensions to this dilemma, including very real financial issues," Steinberg added. Of room and board, in particular, he said, some institutions "can’t make their numbers work without this revenue."

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