This week saw the hopeful yet uneasy return to on-campus learning for universities nationwide, with debates continuing over vaccine mandates, safety regulations, and showing up in person at all as delta drives a COVID-19 case surge. The University of Pennsylvania, like many colleges, expects students and staff to be on campus — a decision prompting hundreds of professors to sign a petition asking for a “policy permitting all faculty (including graduate student instructors and all categories of contingent faculty) to make their own decisions about whether to teach some or all of their classes in-person or online.”

While the signers argue this step will make the Penn community safer, others counter it’s not necessary to control transmission. The Inquirer asked two Penn professors to debate: Should faculty have the option to teach all-remote?

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Yes: Giving teachers options is the only way to keep our communities safe.

By Suvir Kaul

Eight weeks ago, Penn faculty were looking forward to returning to campus, getting to know their students, and resuming the exciting project of education in the classroom. But the spread of the delta variant, which per the CDC is “more than 2x as contagious,” and rising “breakthrough infections” among vaccinated people (because the vaccine is less effective against delta, though still robust) have caused many to fear for themselves and vulnerable family members, students, staff, and the local community impacted by campus transmission. In the past week, hundreds of our colleagues signed a petition asking Penn to allow instructors to determine their mode of instruction, based on the specific pedagogical needs of their courses and their safety concerns.

While Penn officials insist their reopening plan is safe, we question the data presented to us behind this conclusion, gathered over summer when the campus was emptier. No one asked if infected people carried the virus back to their families or into the community. The risk level has obviously increased; Duke, a peer institution, has already reported levels of infection high enough to shift to remote learning for two weeks while they attempt to control the outbreak.

In an emergency meeting convened by Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on Monday, instructors of all ranks discussed widespread concerns. They were worried by the fact that Penn administrators will not inform faculty and students when a student in their class tests positive. Contact tracing should occur automatically so that all exposed can be promptly tested and treated. Many instructors go home to unvaccinated children or immunocompromised family members or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to potentially life-threatening illness. All faculty and staff need to decide for themselves what medical risks they can take, particularly when such risks can be avoided.

Let us be clear: Most faculty would much rather teach in person under safe conditions. Teaching remotely is more labor-intensive and often less fulfilling. However, Penn’s patchwork of ever-changing and contradictory policies has failed to assure faculty that it is safe to return to the classroom. Penn has not assured students, instructors, and staff access to standardized PPE. A recently adopted twice-a-month testing regimen will do little to stem outbreaks. More worrisome still is Penn’s lack of comprehensive accommodations for people with medical conditions or vulnerable family members at home. We also haven’t heard how Penn will accommodate students with medical conditions that put them at risk in face-to-face classes.

“Most faculty would much rather teach in person under safe conditions. However, Penn’s patchwork of ever-changing and contradictory policies has failed to assure faculty that it is safe to return to the classroom.”

Suvir Kaul

Scientific data suggest the need for social distancing indoors. Penn recommends this precaution at outdoor events, yet such concern does not extend to tightly packed, sometimes windowless, basement classrooms. This is a troubling inconsistency, particularly given the length of classes. While Penn administrators are apprised of these concerns, none has defined to us the benchmarks that would trigger a move to remote instruction. If what we are seeing elsewhere is any indication, it seems likely that a percentage of students, instructors, and staff will suffer before that happens.

AAUP-Penn and many beyond our membership recognize that our academic responsibilities are primarily to meet the educational needs of our students. But we also recognize the necessity of protecting each other in dangerous times. No Penn administrator has explained the principles guiding their decision to mandate face-to-face teaching despite rising transmission. Faculty and staff are demoralized by the impression that the university is putting financial interest before the health of the community. We hope that is not the case, and wait for the administration to do the right thing.

Suvir Kaul is president of AAUP-Penn and an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

No: Classroom transmission is unlikely and remote education insufficient.

By Jonathan Zimmerman

Look at those ignorant Republicans, resisting COVID-19 vaccines and masks! They’re denying science!

That’s been a refrain of my fellow liberals in the academy, which prides itself on its scientific bona fides. But we sometimes ignore science, too, when it doesn’t fit our preconceptions or purposes.

Witness the petition signed by over 200 faculty members and graduate students at Penn, demanding that professors be allowed to “make their own decisions” about whether to teach in person or online. Given the “high transmission probabilities in classroom settings,” the petition argued, nobody should be required to meet students there.

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But here’s what the science says: The chance of acquiring COVID-19 in classrooms is tiny. At Purdue University, which conducted in-person classes last fall, officials administered 84,000 viral tests and could not trace a single COVID-19 case to a classroom. Ditto for Cornell, which tested undergraduates twice a week and found no evidence of classroom transmission. And all that happened before anyone had access to vaccines, of course, which make in-class transmission even less likely.

COVID-19 spreads at parties and other informal settings, where students are mostly outside of our supervision. In class, by contrast, we can monitor their behavior. The sad irony of last semester was that many institutions — including Penn — welcomed students back to campus but did not teach them in person. We let them congregate in places we knew were dangerous, and we blocked them from gathering where they would be safe: our own classrooms.

I understand that many of my colleagues feel afraid to teach in person. But to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone is entitled to their own feelings but not their own facts. Plenty of people are afraid of the COVID-19 vaccine, too, but that doesn’t make their resistance to it right.

“Just as the decision not to vaccinate adversely affects others, so does teaching students online rather than in person.”

Jonathan Zimmerman

Nor should we frame the question of in-person teaching as a professor’s personal “choice,” which likewise echoes the language of anti-vaccinators. All choices are not created equal. And just as the decision not to vaccinate adversely affects others, so does teaching students online rather than in person.

In a 2014 study of over 40,000 students in Washington state, investigators found that students tended to get worse grades in their online classes than in their regular ones. The drop-off was sharpest for students who were male, younger, and Black, and for students with lower grade point averages. In 2019, an extensive survey of research reported that students from lower-income and underrepresented backgrounds underperform in online settings. Put simply, virtual instruction widens the achievement gap in higher education.

You would think that a faculty so committed to equity — as many Penn professors claim to be — would pay a bit more attention to these facts. If you want a more equitable university or nation, you should be teaching in person. Anything less will hurt the people who have the least.

Of course, professors who are immunocompromised or who have other serious medical conditions should not be required to teach in the classroom. But many institutions already allow such exemptions to their vaccination requirements, so long as the condition can be documented by a doctor.

There’s already enough cynicism about science in our culture, especially among Republicans. Shame on the rest of us, if we play fast and loose with science ourselves. Its message is clear: We should get back our classrooms, following the safety guidelines that have blocked transmission. The only question is whether we’ll listen.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the coauthor (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn,” published in April by City of Light Press.

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