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College campuses, coronavirus and fear of the unknown

Professors at schools like Brigham Young University, the University of Wyoming and Arizona State fear returning to campus in the fall.

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Glass installers Nick Trueblood, of Clinton, Mass., left, and Michael Cane, of Burlington, Mass., right, install a plastic barrier on Thursday, May 21, 2020, at a security desk at the entrance to a dormitory, at Boston University, in Boston. Boston University is among a growing number of universities making plans to bring students back to campus this fall, but with new measures meant to keep the coronavirus at bay.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — When the COVID-19 pandemic began in February, college closures were a bellwether. The stages of institutions’ reactions — first, moving classes online as a temporary measure, then shifting to remote learning and sending students away from campus — were some of the most visible examples of a national process of social distancing and shuttering shared spaces. In recent days, these same institutions’ plans for reopening in the fall have epitomized the difficult processes of adapting life to a virus that continues to surge in the United States.

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Last week, Harvard announced that only 40% of its students— primarily freshmen in the fall semester and seniors in the spring— will be permitted to return to campus during the upcoming academic year. Classes will be held online, and students will be required to agree to mandatory safety measures, according to The Harvard Gazette. The plan, like those of other Ivy League institutions planning to continue primarily online instruction, does not include a tuition decrease, which has angered many students and parents. “This just seems to be the worst of all worlds,” Kirby Bradley, the father of a Yale senior, told The New York Times.

Schools in the West, home to a number of states where coronavirus cases are spiking, present a different set of concerns. Unlike the Ivies, many institutions in the region, such as the University of Montana and the University of Nevada (Reno and Las Vegas) still intend to have a significant number of in-person classes in the fall. While this allows these schools to avoid some questions about the fairness of charging full fare for a diminished classroom experience, it also introduces the problem of safety for the professors tasked with providing that experience.

Instructors at risk

“Most faculty are very nervous,” Susie Shannon Porter, a professor of history and recent department chair at the University of Utah, said. “They’re nervous about how to maintain the kinds of circumstances that you need to stay safe in the classroom.” The University of Utah has announced that “our campus activities ... will be operational in fall 2020,” via a combination of in-person and online instruction.

Across the region, the most heavily enrolled colleges plan to proceed with at least some degree of in-person instruction. Brigham Young University will have phased returns of students to campus and hybrid classes that combine classroom and online instruction. The University of Wyoming will offer a similar combination of in-person and online courses. Arizona State, with an undergraduate enrollment of almost 43,000 students, plans to implement “full-immersion on-campus classes.”

But the announced plans to reopen coincide with a surge in COVID-19 infections, as the West sees spikes while cities on the East Coast flatten their curves. Utah has recently averaged more than 500 new cases per day. “In some ways, I would say, we’re in the worst possible spot,” Fred Adler, a mathematical biology professor at the University of Utah who models epidemics, said. “We have enough cases to threaten the medical system, but not enough to herd immunity of some sort. ... It’s an unpleasant intermediate place we’re at, and I don’t really see how we’re going to get out of it.” Adler said he did not pursue teaching his fall course online, citing the importance of face-to-face conversation. He did, however, request a room with windows.

Much of the national conversation around education in the time of COVID-19 has centered on students and families. “We want to reopen the schools,” President Donald Trump said on July 7. “Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it.” There are also financial incentives for schools to reopen. Beyond the facilities that won’t bring in revenue on empty campuses — dining halls, dormitories — colleges risk seeing an enrollment drop if students are unwilling to pay for a remote-learning experience.

If the risks gathering in classrooms presents to healthy young people in their late teens and early 20s are comparatively minor, though, the risks to their instructors can be severe. According to the CDC, 8 out of 10 coronavirus deaths in America have been in people 65 or older, a demographic into which many professors fall. “A lot of faculty, (the at-risk group) is what age they are,” Porter said.

Protective measures

Many schools are adopting measures that allow at-risk faculty members to opt out of in-person teaching if they feel concerned. Robert Wagner, vice president for academic and instructional services at Utah State University, said departments were encouraged to take professors’ risk levels into account when devising instruction plans. Lori McDonald, vice president of student affairs at the University of Utah, said deciding which classes went online-only involved “a lot of back and forth with getting feedback on guidelines with faculty.”

“The University (of Utah) developed a TWA — a temporary work adjustment — and basically uses an expanded version of CDC guidelines for people to request not to have to work in person,” Porter said. These policies, though, can require disclosing medical information that some professors are hesitant to divulge. “I’ve requested to teach online because of some health concerns that I have. It felt a little weird having to disclose that, because the health concerns that I have have not necessarily needed any sort of special accommodations,” Neal Lester, a professor of English at Arizona State, said.

The discussion around returning to classrooms has also emphasized the sometimes fraught power dynamics in a higher educational system increasingly reliant on adjunct professors. Adjuncts, who earn far less money than their tenure-track counterparts and have little job security from one semester to the next, are incentivized to take added risks.

“Adjuncts’ contracts may only last for a year,” Ronald Ehrenberg, an economist who has written extensively on the economics of higher education, said. “They may start to worry that if they refuse to teach students who are not wearing masks, even if they’re allowed to teach online, they may not be hired in the next year.”

“I’m a tenured faculty member, so I can say, ‘I’m not teaching a class where people aren’t wearing their masks,’” Porter said. “Somebody whose career line is much more vulnerable (can’t).”

Professors remain cognizant of the unavoidable shortcomings of online instruction. Aside from the problem of distraction, there is the less-discussed gap between students in access to technology. “One (student from the spring semester) kind of fell off the planet and said that they had to leave school because they couldn’t do it virtually where they were,” Lester said.

The appeal of returning to the classroom, like that of returning to restaurants and stadiums, is apparent. Beyond providing a better learning environment, it would signal a resumption of something like routine, if not yet a full return to normalcy. “We’re primates,” Adler said. “We like to be in physical contact with each other.” But the benefits come with fear. “The one thing we all crave is some sort of certainty,” McDonald said. “And it seems like that’s the one thing we can’t have.”