As coronavirus cases continue to climb around the country, so do concerns among faculty about the prospect of teaching students in the classroom.
Nearly three-quarters of faculty who responded to a survey in the last week at Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities said they would not feel safe teaching or interacting with students in person in the fall. Only 12% said they want to return to in-classroom teaching, according to the survey conducted by the staffers’ union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties. Nearly two-thirds of the 4,800 faculty members responded to the survey.
“The take-home message I got after reviewing the survey data was that faculty do not feel safe going back face-to-face in the fall,” said Jamie Martin, a criminology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and president of the faculty union. “They want to teach. They don’t want to get sick.”
Concerns also are mounting on other campuses, including Temple and Pennsylvania State University, where administrators said they intend to bring students back under a hybrid teaching model of in-person and online classes in the fall.
Meanwhile, some universities, including West Chester, with more than 17,000 students the largest in the state system, have begun to reverse course, moving to all or mostly remote instruction for the fall. East Stroudsburg University, another state school, this week said it would conduct most of its classes online. In New Jersey, Rutgers University last week made a similar announcement, with limited exceptions in areas such as the arts, laboratory or fieldwork, and clinical instruction.
And Dickinson College in Carlisle on Wednesday said its classes would remain remote for the fall, citing increased cases of the virus around the country, potential delays in test results, and the need to quarantine hundreds of students who may be coming in from hot spots.
“Faced with the scientific evidence, and understanding that the virus spreads easily in locations where large groups of people live in close proximity, we felt we had to make this decision to preserve the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and the greater Carlisle community,” president Margee M. Ensign said.
Where campuses are still planning more in-person instruction, professors are questioning how schools can ensure the safety of staff and students.
“We have significant concerns about how faculty requests to teach remotely are being accommodated,” said Steve Newman, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, its faculty union, “… and we have concerns about the steps that the university is taking in order to make the campus safe.”
Nearly three-quarters of more than 360 Temple faculty who responded to a survey said they would rather teach online; only 5% said they want to teach in person, Newman said.
Temple on Wednesday said in a campus message that physical distancing guidelines had greatly reduced campus capacity, and that only 3,300 seats will be available in traditional classrooms that typically held more than 15,000. The school is establishing new classroom space in other buildings not traditionally used for teaching, including the library.
“Nevertheless,” campus leaders said, “the instructional format of many classes has changed to hybrid or online-only to reduce the number of people on campus and in classrooms at any given time.”
The university has extended its deadline for students to withdraw from university housing to July 31, given the course plans outlined this week.
At Penn State, some faculty have been meeting to figure out ways to pressure the university to reconsider its plan, said Sarah Townsend, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at University Park.
“With cases surging around the country, fewer and fewer people think the university can safely bring students back to campus,” she said. “They haven’t done what it takes. They have not shown they can pull this off, and I don’t think they will.”
Some universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, have pledged to test all students when they return, she said. Yet, at Penn State, where enrollment at University Park is about 47,000, the university has not made such a declaration, she said.
Faculty also had been asking for the right to bar students from classrooms if they refuse to wear face masks. The university this week said faculty will be asked to refer students to the student conduct office for discipline if they fail to comply with a directive that face masks be worn in classrooms, labs, offices, and campus buildings. Social distancing also is required, the school said.
At state system universities, Martin said, her members have many concerns.
About 40% of faculty who responded to the survey have an underlying condition that could put them at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 if they have to teach in person, she said. Many also live with or care for someone who is at risk. And more than 60% are concerned about contracting COVID-19 or exposing their family to it.
The responses came from faculty from all campuses — West Chester, East Stroudsburg, Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock.
Faculty also are concerned that students will not comply with social distancing guidelines outside the classroom. About 95% of respondents said they didn’t think students would comply, Martin said.
She acknowledged that enrollment could be impacted with only online classes, which could be difficult for the state system, where enrollment has fallen about 20% since 2010. But other concerns outweigh that, she said.
“What’s going to be the impact on a school and community if you have an outbreak and have people die?” she asked. “I don’t think we are being dramatic. It’s happening all around us.”