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Karolina Grabowska/

With coronavirus case counts rising in many parts of the country and no vaccine yet widely available, academe is still far from normal. Yet a number of campuses are pushing for more normalcy, in the form of more face-to-face courses for spring.

College and universities seeking more in-person instruction next term cite student demand for it, among other factors. Politics and institutional finances are also undoubtably at play. And so faculty members and graduate students are urging their institutions, by various means, to pump the brakes on face-to-face mandates and to widen exemption criteria for instructors seeking to stay remote.

Feeling Unheard in Florida

In Florida, for instance, faculty unions at three public universities -- the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University -- are filing grievances against their institutions regarding in-person instruction. These actions follow other forms of outreach by professors to their administrations.

"We are putting economic concerns above health concerns,” said Robert Cassanello, associate professor of history at Central Florida and president of its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated faculty union. Rumors are swirling that universities are facing political pressure to go in-person before they’re ready or face deeper state budget cuts. Healthwise, Cassanello is "concerned there may be vulnerable faculty who do not fit nicely" into the university’s current set of exemption criteria.

On Friday, Central Florida released a faculty memo affirming its plan for more face-to-face classes come spring and updating its criteria for professors seeking permission to keep teaching their classes remotely, as many did this fall.

“In planning for the spring semester, we are keeping our students’ academic success at the forefront while maintaining the precautions we are taking for our community’s health and well-being,” Michael D. Johnson, interim provost, wrote in that memo. All COVID-19-related policies, including physical distancing and wearing face coverings, will remain in effect, he said, “and we will not be increasing density in our classrooms. Should public health conditions require a change, we are ready to pivot to more remote teaching at any time if necessary.”

Citing updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Central Florida added pregnancy to its list of criteria. It also added age: professors who are 70 or older as of January 2021 may seek an exemption.

The CDC has repeatedly said that anyone 65 or older is at greatly increased risk of death from COVID-19. So what about those professors aged 65 to 69? Central Florida also requires that a doctor sign off on accommodation request forms, which are routed through human resources offices.

Cassanello said that there are 90 people aged 70 or older at Central Florida impacted by the decision and that the policy "is geared to make the maximum number of faculty available [for] teaching in the classroom for the spring."

Claudia Schippert, associate professor of philosophy and the union’s grievance chair, said, “We do not agree that there is a clear and compelling reason that -- and have not been presented with evidence why -- we need to increase face-to-face teaching to the degree suggested, especially at the same time that infection rates are again rising, and especially when we have solid reasons for and successful track record with online instruction.”

Chad Binette, a spokesperson for Central Florida, said that the university is working to offer more face-to-face classes for spring because it knows much more about health, testing and tracing efforts than it did over the summer, and “because we know the on-campus experience is important for our students’ success.” He said it’s “significant” no campus cases have been traced back to classroom instruction thus far.

The university hasn’t a settled on an exact of number spring face-to-face courses yet, he said. Faculty members say the university is aiming for 50 percent, which, with physical distancing, will require the majority of instructors to teach in person. Central Florida is currently offering courses in several modalities, but most sections are online.

The University of Florida, meanwhile, has scheduled 5,394 face-to-face undergraduate course sections for fall, compared to 5,322 last spring, pre-coronavirus, and 821 this fall.

Steve Orlando, spokesperson for Florida, said the campus will continue to follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing, reduced classroom capacity and face coverings.

Kent Fuchs, university president, said in his own spring update memo that “although we are justifiably proud of the effectiveness of UF’s online instruction” over last spring and this fall, “the full experience of a residential university includes in-person instruction.”

“The next step we must take,” then, he said, “is to significantly increase the opportunity for students to experience in-person, face-to-face learning.” The campus has learned much about keeping everyone as “safe as possible with in-person teaching and learning,” he said, and “our students deserve this opportunity.”

Beyond the student experience, Fuchs said that these “are difficult times for government and family budgets,” and that Florida’s “best shared opportunity to retain full funding for our university, and thereby protect the jobs of our employees, is to provide more of our students with the full educational experience and opportunities they had before COVID.”

Tom Auxter, associate professor of philosophy at Florida, said the university appears to be bowing to political pressure from state lawmakers including Republican governor Ron DeSantis, who has been criticized for pushing K-12 schools to reopen. Auxter, 75, initiated what has since become a chapterwide grievance seeking remote teaching as the default instructional method for spring through his branch of the statewide faculty union.

“I’m 75 years old and I don’t want to be walking into a classroom right now,” he said.

While Auxter’s in good health, he said the very age of his immune system skyrockets his risk of dying by COVID-19 if he contracts it. Earlier this year, Auxter went to his physician seeking a waiver for teaching in person, but he said his doctor wouldn’t sign off on it because he’s not technically disabled, based on federal legal criteria.

While Florida says it is aligning its in-person exemption policy with CDC high-risk criteria, Auxter and other instructors point out that exemption requests are routed through the campus’s Americans With Disabilities Act compliance office. One form requires a doctor’s preparation and documentation of medical condition or disability.

This daylight between federal disability law and CDC high-risk guidelines for the coronavirus has discouraged some faculty members from applying for permission to teach remotely, according to the union chapter’s grievance.

Moreover, the grievance says, caretaking -- an issue that disproportionately affects women -- is not a criterion at all.

The statewide faculty union chapter at Florida Atlantic University has prepared a similar grievance, and the University of Florida’s graduate employee union has demanded that the university make remote instruction default for spring.

Bobby Mermer, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Florida and president of the AFT- and NEA-affiliated graduate student union there, said that his members are similarly confused and worried about who will be required to teach in person as professors. While the university has referred to highest-risk CDC guidelines as exemption criteria, he said, some of his members have asthma, which the CDC says “might” increase someone’s risk of severe illness.

As for age, Mermer said that “we all know that in the beginning of the outbreak all the talk was it was the elderly who were affected, but since then we know about pre-existing conditions, regardless of age. I have members with COPD, asthma, diabetes, who are overweight, which can lead to breathing problems, what have you.”

Unlike faculty members, Mermer said he’s worried that graduate assistants will be used as a “shield” for faculty members who, say, bring in a lot of grant money but don’t want to teach in person. There’s been “some talk” of faculty members circumventing the in-person requirement by asking graduate students to facilitate classes to which professors only join in by Zoom, he said. This would mean exposure for graduate students as well as more work, on top of their own course sections.

Gathering Faculty Input

Elsewhere, some administrations have signaled that they are listening to faculty and graduate student concerns about in-person instruction.

Northeastern University this fall messaged professors about the spring semester but didn’t mention childcare concerns as a criterion for exemption from in-person instruction. Professors spoke out against any face-to-face teaching plan that didn’t take this into account. The university responded that it was an oversight -- that childcare was always a factor.

In his most recent faculty memo, David Madigan, provost, said that he’d “attended town halls, listening sessions and other engagement opportunities. I have met with many of you individually. I have listened to your ideas, candid feedback and concerns.” Shifting schedules in local K-12 schools, among other “external uncertainties, have put tremendous strain on many in our community.”

“Understandably, many of you have described real hardship with respect to health conditions, specific childcare needs and similar family situations, among others,” he said. “To be clear, no faculty member facing such hardships will be compelled to return in the spring.”

As faculty circumstances change over time, Madigan added, “We will remain flexible and accommodating, just as we have been this fall.” Universitywide, “our plans will constantly adapt to the evolving public health situation. We will continue to be guided by science to ensure the safety and well-being of our community at large, while preserving our ability to respond quickly to changing public health conditions.”

Rebecca Carrier, professor of chemical engineering and mother of three, said she’d like to be back in the classroom full-time, but that the COVID-19-impacted schooling schedules of her children prevent her from doing so. Currently, she’s teaching about half of her courses in person and half online -- even though most of her students attend the in-person classes remotely.

While the initial university communication about spring instruction was confusing, Carrier said, it’s clear to her that the university sought out faculty input and incorporated it into its planning.

“They deserve some credit there, you know what I mean?” Carrier said of administrators. “They’ve been making all these meetings and reaching out to people to understand the situations they’re in.”

The University of Michigan faced faculty pressure to foreground health and safety in decisions about instruction for the upcoming winter term before it announced Friday -- following a two-week student lockdown -- that winter will include more remote courses than fall. No faculty member will be forced to teach in person.

“The Fall Term promise of a robust hybrid in-person semester proved to be unfulfillable,” read a faculty-led petition to President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins. “We know this from our experience and the experience of our colleagues and students. While it seems that some units/departments must have in-person instructional components, there should nevertheless be a clear commitment to moving as much teaching as pedagogically possible entirely online, and to making such teaching as effective as possible.”

Peter Railton, Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor, John Stephenson Perrin Professor and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in philosophy at Michigan, who co-wrote the petition, said that Schlissel’s announcement about winter was “very good news.”

Railton, an advocate of faculty mental health, also commended Michigan for adding two midweek, one-day “well-being breaks” for the fall term and for expanding its counseling and psychological services. Faculty and staff members also get three extra paid days off during the winter break.

Virginia Tech has implored professors to consider how mode of instructional delivery impacts “academic quality,” especially with respect to asynchronous instruction, as well as student satisfaction and mental health.

Even so, Mark Owczarksi, university spokesperson, said that Virginia Tech’s faculty members have “agency” with respect to remote versus in-person instruction. “They make the final decision regarding course modality in consultation with their respective department heads,” he said.

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