Dr. Joe Gerald will be lecturing students in person this fall. But what he might teach them in his public health course is that being in the classroom during a pandemic is a bad idea.
Gerald’s 150-student lecture on US health care at the University of Arizona in Tucson will be split into groups so there will only be about 20 students in the same room as Gerald, but he will still meet with all of them.
“My disciplinary knowledge tells me that this a really stupid idea,” said Gerald, a 52-year-old physician and an associate professor of public health policy and management.
“But I also recognize that my university’s financial model is dependent on having students in the classroom. And so, if we don’t bring them back in person, it’s going to be devastating to our university.”
On March 18, when the university began online learning, an average of nine new coronavirus cases were being reported each day in Arizona. Four months later, there were more than 3,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
But Gerald will be in the classroom this fall. “I know it’s the wrong thing to do but I’m kind of pinned in because of my job,” he said. “If I were to step aside, someone else would just fill in my place.”
Ashley Farmer, 35, an assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin, says the majority of colleagues she knows at the university have elected to teach online.
“I saw no plan where it seemed feasible that the university could offer up protections to students or professors,” she told CNN. “If we had, as a state or as a city been able to get it under control in March or April, maybe then by August or September it might have been feasible.”
Farmer said she and her colleagues were polled about their preferences, but there were still outstanding issues.
“There’s a real question about what if the instructor gets sick that we’re not talking about at all,” Farmer said. “Is one of my colleagues supposed to step in and teach a class on top of their own classes on a subject that is not their expertise? Or is the student supposed to just drop the class for the rest of the semester and they don’t get their credit hours they paid for?”
Age is a key factor in tough decisions
The University of Florida is anticipating that 35% of undergraduate, graduate and professional courses will be held in face-to-face or hybrid modes, according to a recent letter from the provost, even with the state being a Covid-19 hotspot.
John Schueller, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will not be teaching on campus. He just turned 65 with a history of pneumonia, and the university approved his application to teach his fall course load remotely. He said he would have declined if asked to teach in person.
“Today would have been my father’s 90th birthday,” Schueller told CNN earlier this month. “And he died when he was 66. I certainly would like to beat his record.”
Professors at Georgia Tech in Atlanta successfully lobbied the state Board of Regents to require masks while on campus. But Covid-19 cases in Georgia are rising and Gov. Brian Kemp is challenging local mask mandates in cities like Atlanta.
Janet Murray, an associate dean for research at Georgia Tech, said she is worried about students.
“They’re going to be in a situation that as soon as they leave campus, they will not be forced to wear a mask,” she told CNN. “We’re going be surrounded by people who are vectors of infection. And they are going to be encouraged in more lax behavior themselves. So, it’s a terrible situation.”
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Murray, who is over 65, is exempt from teaching in-person this fall based on university guidelines. An expert in the field of digital media and the future of narrative storytelling, she’s offering to meet students individually at the beginning of the semester to give them an augmented reality project.
“I have a lot of fear for anyone being in a classroom for a full class period. Or a dormitory or Greek house,” she said. “I think it is reckless of the administration to open under the current conditions.”
One of her younger colleagues, Devesh Ranjan, a 38-year-old mechanical engineering professor, said he was prepared for face-to-face instruction.
“With my age group, I feel I can take care,” Ranjan told CNN. “I’m more worried about my senior faculty members and colleagues, if they have to teach in person.”
For those who can choose to teach in-person classes or not, it remains a tough decision.
Logan Browning, an English and humanities professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, got emotional when talking about his choice.
“I was very, very sorry to opt out,” said Browning, who is about to turn 65.
“But with the extraordinary spread around us right now, it just seemed like it was a risk that I shouldn’t take.”