Recently, when I heard from my colleagues at Temple University that our tentative class assignments for the fall had been sent, I checked my email with trepidation. I deal with the angst around this email every semester, as adjuncts are not guaranteed classes and do not get multi-semester contracts. But this summer's email was even more intense than usual because I would also find out if my request to teach online because of the COVID-19 pandemic was accepted — or if I was going to have to choose between my job and my life.
It turned out that the director of my program had been able to convert my two in-person classes to online classes, which meant that I wouldn’t have to make that decision after all. My mother, a breast cancer survivor, was overjoyed. A nurse for more than 40 years and a teacher of nursing for nearly 20 year, she had to make that choice when she gave up an appointment at her institution to teach clinical and was not offered any online-only courses.
But my family’s relief was short-lived. As an adjunct, I know my classes can still be taken away. Soon after I checked my email, I got word from several colleagues that they lost classes or were assigned to teach in-person despite health concerns. Almost everyone I know is suffering from completely needless, avoidable anxiety about their health and livelihoods.
What is at stake for me is not just my own health but that of my parents, with whom I’m currently staying. Both are approaching 65, and have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. If I had been assigned in-person classes, what would I have done? The only option I was given by the university was to file a Request for Disability Accommodation due to a preexisting medical condition. This is an inept solution, not only because healthy young people have died from COVID-19 but also because it completely ignores the health of those with whom I am in constant close contact.
The health risks of COVID-19 are even greater for students, campus workers, and faculty of color, which makes reopening campus a racial justice issue as well – not to mention the majority Black and Latinx communities of North Philadelphia, who will also be at risk from an influx of new people into their neighborhoods. Opening campus in full knowledge of all this is irresponsible and adds more tension to Temple’s decades of gentrification and over-policing of North Philadelphia.
Temple’s strategy explicitly assumes “reduced infection rates” for reopening in August. The university has stated that there will be a combination of in-person and online classes, but it presents no real plan in case of an outbreak aside from all of us – students and professors – being “nimble” and “ready to pivot” to online classes in the same way we were compelled to in the spring. Returning students will be coming from all over the country, some 40 U.S. states. Only 11,000 of 29,000 students lived on or near campus according to a 2019 estimate, which means thousands of students constantly traveling to and from campus by public transportation.
Why can’t Temple allow all faculty and students to decide if they want their classes to be fully online, no questions asked? Why not promise to honor all “Requests for Accommodation,” even in the absence of an identifiable “preexisting medical condition”? To reduce risk as much as possible, everyone who is able and willing to work online should be encouraged and allowed to do so, as the Temple Association of University Professionals has recently demanded.
Other universities in the region, including Widener, Penn, West Chester, and the University of the Arts, have made the decision to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff by putting as many classes as possible online for the fall semester. In a major win for teachers, staff, parents, and students, Philadelphia public schools capitulated to pressure and will be fully online at least until November – complicating matters for Temple faculty with children. Temple is increasingly in the minority when it comes to reopening – and the more the administration insists on going ahead with its plans, the clearer it becomes that it is out of touch with the reality of the pandemic.
It is terrifying how easily this respiratory infection spreads, and it is an affront to human dignity to ask people to unnecessarily put themselves and their families at risk.