Kutztown University professor Stephen Oross III got a heart transplant earlier this year.

With cases of COVID-19 surging, he didn’t feel safe returning to in-person teaching, and his doctors warned against it. Kutztown, a state university, requires masks but doesn’t require the vaccine, so he faced the possibility of being in classrooms with unvaccinated students and little room for social distancing.

“He’s still immunocompromised and ... I felt his risk of being exposed and getting a breakthrough case is very high,” said his cardiologist, Shelley Hankins, of Hershey Medical Center.

The university denied Oross’ request. He took an unpaid leave of absence for the semester.

“It’s morally repugnant. It’s the antithesis of being a caring community,” said Oross, 61, an associate professor of psychology.

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As universities throughout the region promised as normal a year as possible with a return to in-person classes, professors have sought exemptions for a number of reasons. But who qualifies, and what circumstances carry enough risk to be able to teach virtually? Absent universal guidelines, colleges set differing bars, some saying they were guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows for “reasonable” accommodations. Some took a hard line, leaving nearly no room for exception.

In some cases, faculty like Oross have had to choose between health concerns and work.

“What you are finding is happening everywhere,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. “Administrations or boards have decided that now is the time to return to normal. ... During a deadly pandemic, decisions need to be made with compassion and they need to be based on science and not on this magical thinking that we are returning to normal.”

Mulvey, a math professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said campuses should be calling upon public health experts in their faculty to help form guidelines. Decisions should be made based on science, local virus conditions, and faculty’s personal circumstances, she said.

‘I worry every time I go to campus’

Of about a dozen universities queried, most declined to specify how many requests they approved, or how they came to decisions. Others were more forthcoming.

Pennsylvania State University said it approved 151 of 224 faculty requests for teaching adjustments at the University Park campus, granted to “individuals who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is immunocompromised, instructors with children who are unvaccinated and are at high risk for complications from COVID-19, and instructors who, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated,” said spokesperson Wyatt DuBois.

The university also approved adjustments for faculty with children 24 months of age and younger, pregnant people, and partners of pregnant individuals, he said.

Guangping “Walter” Wang, who teaches marketing at Penn State Great Valley, a graduate campus in Malvern, did not qualify even though he has a 3-year-old autistic son who cannot be vaccinated. Therapists come into his home 25 hours a week to provide services to his son. If Wang were to be exposed to COVID-19, it might disrupt the therapists’ visits, which would be detrimental to his son, he said.

Although there are six students in his class and they can social distance, Penn State does not require the vaccine, so some could be unvaccinated.

“I worry every time I go to campus,” said Wang, 55, of Doylestown.

Others, too, question their employers’ decision not to grant a waiver.

A Rowan University professor with young children, who asked not to be named fearing retribution, has multiple classes, 75 minutes each, with 20 to 40 students. All are masked, but social distancing isn’t possible, he said.

He’s already had a student test positive, he said, and he doesn’t have authority to move the class online, even for a short period.

“I just feel scared,” he said.

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Phyllis Rackin, an emerita English professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has continued to teach a class on Shakespeare every fall, was told she couldn’t conduct her class remotely.

“I am 88 and I have been diagnosed with COPD, so I didn’t feel safe sitting in a small seminar room with 12 students, even if we were all masked and vaccinated, because of breakthrough infections,” said Rackin, who has taught at Penn since 1962.

She said her department rescheduled the class for spring. She hopes conditions improve.

An attempt to be fair and consistent

For colleges, the requests for exemptions were yet another tricky pandemic hurdle. Campuses sought to be fair and consistent as they considered accommodation requests from all employees, not just faculty, said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education. Even though the delta variant was causing cases to climb, most colleges determined returning to in-person instruction was best for students — and safe. McDonough noted that many universities require the COVID-19 vaccine and the vast majority of their students and staff are fully vaccinated. Many also require masks indoors.

“For an institution that has decided that their objective is to teach in-person, the online alternative is unreasonable in that analysis,” he said.

He also said many colleges are in communities where K-12 schools have required teachers to return. “It’s hard to say we should treat our college faculty differently,” he said.

Some colleges, including Penn, report no COVID-19 transmission in the classroom, but rather through social gatherings.

Yet many local colleges vastly differed in how they handled requests, ranging from outright refusal to interactive decision-making using various criteria.

At Drexel, “the university is not changing the modality of any course to accommodate faculty preference,” said Niki Gianakaris, a spokesperson, although there may have been cases where a department switched instructors for a course because of extenuating circumstances.

Swarthmore College did not offer faculty the option of teaching remotely either, although two out of 866 classes are being taught remotely because of medical accommodations.

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At Temple University, in cases where faculty had a medical condition, human resources engaged “in an interactive process” to determine what accommodations if any could be made “while still delivering appropriate educational services to students,” said spokesperson Steve Orbanek. Other cases were handled by individual departments, which assessed faculty members’ expertise, ability to teach online, and availability of online courses in that subject, he said.

Villanova University said it received few requests and approved the majority based upon medical criteria. “If a request was not approved, other options were also considered — such as moving a class to a larger classroom,” said spokesperson Jonathan Gust.

Penn, which reported receiving a small number of requests for exemptions, said its provost’s office set guidelines in consultation with the university’s public health experts. With permission, the school does allow temporary shifts to remote instruction due to decreased attendance.

At Kutztown, where Oross teaches, his was one of four requests the university received. All were denied, using ADA criteria, said spokesperson Matthew Santos.

“The decisions were based on the requestor providing the appropriate medical documentation, the impact of the disability, and whether or not the requested accommodation met the ADA definition of ‘reasonable,’” Santos said. “Accommodations are considered reasonable if they do not create an undue hardship, do not cause a direct threat to health or safety of others or would not constitute a fundamental alteration.”

The four were approved for family medical leave, he said, and they should be able to draw on benefits offered by Kutztown and the state system, including the use of up to 90 accrued paid sick leave days per calendar year.

After Oross got his transplant in February, he took the spring semester off, using most of his accumulated sick leave. In late July, he said, his doctors told him he could teach but only remotely, given rising case counts and no vaccine requirement at Kutztown, which has recorded 136 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff since Aug. 19.

Oross asked to convert his four classes to online but was told before he filed his request that changing the mode constitutes a “fundamental alteration” and would likely not be approved.

The university at the last minute offered to allow him to teach two high-demand online classes, not part of his original load, a move that would have taken him to three-quarters pay. But Oross said he had questions about the classes and the number of students and got no answers.

He said he is filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I’m concerned about the spring as well,” he said.