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Watching COVID-19 case counts rise around her due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, Jane Marcellus was glad when Middle Tennessee State University announced a mask mandate this month.
But that only downgraded the university’s full return to face-to-face instruction from “immoral” to “dangerous,” she said -- not just for her, but for students, with no vaccine mandate and low local vaccination rates. So Marcellus, a professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee, requested an accommodation to teach remotely.
The request was promptly denied, for being “too late.” Marcellus, 64, responded to the denial with her resignation.
“I keep thinking of the horrible irony of getting COVID this semester would be, after making it this far,” Marcellus wrote in a letter to her dean. “I have things I want to do, things I want to write, and I need my health for all of it.”
James Tierney, an assistant teaching professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University at State College, has a similar story: when the university denied his request to teach his 590-person introductory course online this fall due to COVID-19, he contemplated resigning right away. Tierney is relatively young with no underlying health issues, but it seemed so wrong to him to convene hundreds of people in one room with masks but no vaccine mandate.
Not wanting to burden a colleague with his fall course load, Tierney agreed to teach this term. But he let Penn State know it would be his last.
“I believe the university’s vision for higher education no longer aligns with my own,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
Marcellus and Tierney aren’t alone: several other professors have publicly announced that they’re leaving their institutions or choosing not to teach this term because their colleges and universities are mandating face-to-face instruction despite rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in their areas.
In another widely followed case, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama at Huntsville recently said he’s leaving the university over the fact that it’s requiring masks indoors but doing little else to halt the spread of COVID-19. The professor, Jeremy Fischer, along with colleagues, had previously asked the university to let professors teach remotely if they wished. The answer was no.
“We know what it takes to protect community health and very likely save lives, and we have the ability to do it,” Fischer said in his resignation letter. “What is lacking is the collective willingness to do so. And I find myself compelled to consider whether my continued relationship with UAH might render me complicit in a moral atrocity.”
Two lecturers at the University of North Georgia, which doesn’t require masks or vaccines, also resigned over having to teach in person, according to the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Tip of the Iceberg
To be clear, professors aren’t quitting in droves. And even during COVID-19, the long-ailing faculty job market is still a college or university’s market. But stories like Marcellus’s, Tierney’s and Fischer’s matter because for every professor who resigns this fall, there are likely many more who can’t or won’t quit for various reasons, including financial ones, but who are concerned about institutions proceeding with COVID-19 plans largely decided before Delta variant gained such a foothold.
These departures may also leave many students with sudden holes in their schedules.
“I’m still frustrated, I guess is the right word, that they would create chaos for 100 students,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former state legislator in Louisiana who has taught government as an adjunct at Louisiana State University for 10 years on and off -- and who recently saw her two fall courses canceled when she said she couldn’t teach in person. She’d asked to teach the courses remotely, citing the local infection rate and her own heart condition, her older spouse and her elderly parents. But the request was denied.
Unlike some other professors who’ve quit this term, Flournoy says she wants to teach again at LSU -- maybe as soon as spring, if it’s safe.
“If I didn’t have a leaky heart, I’d be in the classroom,” she said. At the same time, “I do feel like there are other professors or instructors that really felt compelled to show up this week, and not worry about their health and safety and the safety of their students. Frankly, we’re having a bad time right now in south Louisiana. I’m concerned that this was not the right decision on the part of the university, to compel faculty members into teaching in person.”
Ernie Ballard III, spokesperson for LSU, didn’t respond to a request for comment about Flournoy’s case directly, but he shared the university’s COVID-19 “road map,” which involves testing unvaccinated students, requiring face coverings, offering hybrid class options for professors with classes of 100 students and more. Ballard also said the university plans to adopt a vaccine mandate now that the Pfizer vaccine has gained full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Penn State didn’t address Tierney’s resignation directly, either, when asked. Lisa Marie Powers, university spokesperson, said that provisions for in-class teaching this fall include a mask requirement for all, sanitation stations, improved ventilation systems, weekly testing and more.
An Accreditor Weighs In
Regarding remote teaching requests, Powers said, “There are a number of reasons that universities cannot let all faculty select remote teaching as an option,” including accreditation concerns.
In a more detailed FAQ-style memo released this week, Penn State said that faculty members can’t choose their own modes of instruction for the fall because some “modes used previously were permitted only because of a special waiver from the Department of Education and the Middle States Commission for Higher Education (MSCHE), our accrediting body.” As an example, Penn State said, “during the pandemic the university was given leeway to enroll students in the same section/course both in-person and online (remote synchronous), but that provision no longer exists. The waiver ended May 31.”
Would Penn State’s accreditation really be at risk if it allowed professors like Tierney to teach remotely? It appears not. Brian Kirschner, a spokesperson for Middle States, Penn State’s accreditor, said that the body approved Penn State for remote instruction well before the pandemic. Some institutions were granted temporary emergency approval for remote instruction during the pandemic, but Penn State is not part of that group.
"In accordance with its scope of accreditation, Penn State has been approved to offer distance education," Kirschner said.
Tierney spent Monday, the first day of classes at Penn State, teaching remotely as part of a Zoom-in protest. He’ll teach the class in person going forward, though his reservations remain and he’s heard what he called “mixed messages” about dealing with students who miss class for COVID-19 illness or exposures: at a recent town hall, he said, professors were told not to offer those students asynchronous options, but the faculty has also been told not to do anything to encourage students to come to class when they’re sick.
“I felt like we were going to start having more inequality in education and the university wasn’t willing to work with that,” Tierney said Monday.
Marcellus, at Middle Tennessee, said Monday the university’s face-to-face mandate only became more difficult to reconcile when she learned students aren’t required to come to class in person -- just professors. Also grating was the university’s big billboard in nearby Murfreesboro announcing that it was “back” and better than ever, as professors never left and in many cases worked harder during the pandemic, she said.
“I kept thinking, I taught remotely last year. And all I really wanted to do was keep teaching remotely,” Marcellus said. Zoom teaching can be even better than in person for certain classes, such as those that require to work on writing in small groups, she added.
In her request to her dean to teach online this term, Marcellus wrote, “I can’t drive to campus and teach in a situation that feels dangerous multiple days a week. It feels unsafe for me, unsafe for students, unsafe for the community, and just wrong.”
Attaching a doctor’s note recommending the accommodation, Marcellus also wrote, “I have never felt less like a professor and more like a piece of machinery.”
Andrew Oppmann, university spokesperson, said he was limited as to what he could say about a personnel matter, but he confirmed that Marcellus had resigned. He also said that Tennessee state law prevents public institutions from requiring the vaccine.
Prior to submitting her resignation, Marcellus said, she hadn’t slept in over a week due to anxiety about returning to campus.
Now she doesn’t know what’s next for her professionally, and that comes with its own set of worries. But for now, for the first time in a while, she said she’s sleeping soundly.