What does it feel like to watch a bad idea slowly descend on you — even when everyone realizes it’s a bad idea, but once set in motion, it feels impossible to stop? I realize that’s just what it feels like to live in the United States right now, and that essential workers have been dealing with reality for nearly six months. But just as life under COVID-19 didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be this mentally and physically precarious for essential workers, it also doesn’t have to be this precarious for those in education.
We’ll see a fuller picture of what’s happening in lower ed in the weeks to come. But right now, we’re watching in real, horrified time as so many institutions welcome tens of thousands of students back to campus with half-baked plans, limited testing, and poor or haphazard communication. To be fair: there are places that are doing this right. They’re largely community colleges, who have no hangups about moving totally online, the handful of public universities that have refused to tell themselves fairytales about the safety of in-person instruction, and small, rural liberal arts colleges with an abundance of resources.
As for the rest: it’s a shitshow. After just one week, the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Michigan State have already retreated on their in-person plans and gone fully online. At the the University of Alabama, there are at least 531 cases since classes resumed last week. At the University of Missouri, there are 159 active student cases after the first day of class. At the University of Miami, there are 141 new cases, and 98 students in quarantine. And hundreds of institutions haven’t even started classes yet. (You can follow all the available COVID-19 dashboards for higher ed institutions in this valuable thread).
There are no perfect options. As Bret C. Devareaux points out in The Atlantic, over the last three decades, public universities have effectively backed themselves into a corner: as state legislatures vote to decrease funding year after year, they’ve shifted their business models to depend on out-of-state tuition, cheap labor from adjunct and contingent faculty, revenue from sports programs, and the “experience” of college life. When COVID makes so much of that impossible, these institutions are, to put it mildly, between fucked and a hard place.
But that doesn’t mean that people need to die. That’s the truth we need to keep shouting: there is no institutional hardship that can excuse people losing their lives or suffering for years to come. It doesn’t have to be this way. And the faculty and staff telling their stories here, from institutions large and small, are here to reaffirm as much.
The rage feels more palpable than ever. So many academics are already dealing with reduced funding, higher course loads, massive student loan debt, low morale, refusals to deal with misconduct and systemic racism, institutional and societal devaluing of their labor, and uncertainty about the future of their discipline and their profession at large. Higher ed has been struggling, destablized, kneecapped, exploitative, however generous or ungenerous you want to be, for a very long time. And COVID-19 has made it impossible to deny or ignore the fissures that threaten the foundation of the enterprise as a whole.
These people aren’t oracles. But a refusal to listen to them, and the frustrations they express, feels like yet another instance of courting certain catastrophe.
Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. All names have been changed to protect interviewees from institutional retaliation. If you’d like to share your story on-campus — as a faculty or staff member, as a student, or as a teacher or staff member in lower ed — you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you appreciate this post, please consider subscribing to Culture Study. You can read the pitch here.
Janice, Tenure-Track Faculty, Public University in Appalachia
Campus COVID Plan: Classes over fifty were automatically moved online, classes under that were supposed to be face to face. Initially there was no mask policy, just "guidance" but after significant pushback from faculty, they strengthened it.
I think that the university is honestly doing the best they can. This is an impossible situation. We are very much dependent on the tuition of students and if we don't have students we don't have jobs. But it is pretty clear that they don't care about us.
We just got an email admonishing us for spreading false information, which is hilarious because the university will not give us any information. No one will tell us anything and they are shocked that rumors are filling it in? Give me a goddamn break.
They keep calling us "The [UNIVERSITY NAME] family" which makes me want to fucking barf. Families protect each other. They don't see me as a family member, they see me as a liability.
And furthermore, they don't seem to understand that "the [UNIVERSITY NAME family" includes people with actual fucking families. There has been almost NO recognition of the special burnout being experienced by women or parents or otherwise underrepresented faculty. We are being told to cut our students breaks, and to be flexible, but our annual reports are still due at the same time and the standards for evaluation and tenure and promotion have not changed. It is clear that we are not really in "the family" — we cost money instead of make money. We don't matter.
I think I always kind of knew this, like in my bones — I am a sociologist after all. But it is super fucking depressing to see it so clearly.
Tammy, Graduate Student and Instructor, Public University in Texas
Campus COVID Plan: In the English department, where I teach, the majority of courses will be held online, because they gave actual professors the option to choose how they taught. However, we're forced to hold almost all first-year writing classes in person, because the college's president seems to believe that these constitute the "college experience." As a result, the department's most vulnerable and worst-paid instructors are responsible for holding most of the in-person classes offered, at significant personal risk. The school does not pay for our health insurance coverage or COVID tests. The 25-person classes are split into two to "facilitate physical distancing," which means we still have to teach 12–13 students in-person at a time and effectively have four smaller sections to manage rather than two larger ones. We also have to manage a significant portion of the course load online. They're calling this a "hybrid" solution.
I'm pissed-off, especially because I know we'll end up online within a few weeks, and we'll suddenly have to retool our classes with zero training for online teaching. I am certain this will happen, and it is entirely preventable.
I think the administration’s plan is to wait until everyone signed contracts to pay full tuition before moving anything online. By the end of September, I think we’ll be forced online. This is a giant waste of time and effort, not to mention the threat to our safety.
I feel like I am only worth the money I bring to them, very little of which is paid to me.
Michelle, Staff Member, Small Public University in New Jersey
Campus COVID Plan: Faculty have been allowed to choose their modality. As of a town hall at 8/20, about 35% of classes will have some in-person component, including 11-15% of classes that will be fully face-to-face. There are guidelines for social distancing, mask-wearing, and hygiene in classrooms and in campus spaces. Students are also able to move into the dorms; they have emphasized that any student who wants housing can get it, and they have secured additional housing in nearby hotels to accommodate demand. To support all this, all staff offices have been called back to campus, with full in-person staffing in all offices expected by September 1st. The administration has stressed that there are accommodations for some work from home or flexible scheduling available for staff, but my office, which does not even serve students, was denied our request, so I cannot imagine whose requests are being met favorably.
One of the most sickening parts of the plan is that in recent weeks, they have begun making manipulative arguments about "vulnerable" students, referencing the fact that many of these students who will be returning “are our most vulnerable and face housing and food insecurity, have limited access to technology at home, and are at highest risk to not be retained." But they did not prioritize vulnerable students for housing — and are trotting them out now as justification for the reopening plans. They made a claim in today's presidential address that the students planning to live on campus are disproportionately minority students, framing campus reopening as a social justice issue. This from an institution that has had several, recent public scandals about racism on campus.
I think many of the faculty who would be most concerned have retreated into the safety afforded them. They're concerned, but since they're not being forced back to campus, they're not really doing anything about it. They don't understand the horror of being staff compelled by the whims of the administration who are hellbent on "reopening" campus for students at any cost. Staff at this institution are generally disempowered relative to faculty, and we are isolated in different offices, so it is hard to say what the general feeling among staff is from my own vantage point. We are also located in a region with a vocal Trump-supporting, conservative base, so I am working alongside some other staff who "don't believe in" masks anyway.
We were one of the last campuses in the state to make plans for online instruction in the spring. It seems that we're being led by people who are, frankly, stupid — and unable to see the writing on the wall and act accordingly. They are cowards; whatever the state guidelines say, they will adhere to the barest minimum to avoid a lawsuit and then pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
I won't be mad if this is the death blow for academia as we know it, except that I know that the wealthiest institutions that serve the wealthiest students are those most poised to survive. But the crisis facing higher education is the same crisis facing us all here in late-stage capitalist America.
Rachel, Staff, Public Flagship University
Campus COVID Plan: Classes are in-person, with all students and instructors masked. They will be tasked with cleaning their areas and a single bottle of spray will be in each room.
Our leadership has not followed the science, despite having a huge public health school at their disposal. Everyone knows that we will shut down this semester — it’s all a question of how soon.
We are in a deep red state, so reaction has been polarizing: staff seem pretty unconcerned, while faculty are incredibly alarmed. It’s important to note that faculty are the ones being forced back into physical spaces while staff are being given more flexibility.
All the options are bad options. If we don’t reopen, we lose tuition and have to do another round of job cuts. But letting students back on campus only buys us time. Not to mention our football program, which is moving forward like everything is fine — even as they say, in meetings, that they don’t think they’ll make it through the first game without having to shut down. We stand to lose $50 million on football alone.
We’ve been so focused on the student-campus experience: we cater to our students and put our employees at risk, and wonder why talent isn’t retained. I think this will show that brick and mortar is overrated for the vast majority of students and that our capital investments — the constant campus expansions and apartment buildings — have been a waste. We should have been investing in thought leaders, researchers, and access. I’m just really sad, honestly. I work at my alma mater and I love this school. But it’s not sustainable, and I’ve started to look for another job. Job searching during a global fucking pandemic is such a weird thing to do, but here we are.
Megan, Tenured Faculty, Small Liberal Arts College in New England
Campus COVID Plan: Testing three times a week for most students, faculty, and staff to start, two times a week thereafter. Campus closed to public, masks required, daily monitoring for symptoms. The college has leased a vacant motel in town to use as a quarantine facility and hired contract tracers. About 30% of classes will be taught fully online either because of size or risk factors for faculty and their families. The remaining 70% will be taught in classrooms with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing. Reduced hours and new protocols for the dining halls, gym, and libraries. There will be increased cleaning and all members of the "campus community" are being asked not to travel out of state. Residence halls are at full capacity.
Given the money the institution's been able to pour into this, the small size and rural location of the campus, and the fact that cases in our state have stayed relatively low — there's no documented community spread in our county — I feel like it might actually work. I think the college is doing pretty much everything it can in pursuit of the goal of opening safely for in-person classes. However, I increasingly question the wisdom of that goal.
I do appreciate that the college has a plan in place when people inevitably get sick, because it’s magical thinking to presume there's any way to get to zero cases on campus. But once people get sick, that opens up a whole range of potential outcomes, from asymptomatic cases and long haul cases to fatal cases, all of which is very unnerving.
There's a lot of uncertainty — we start classes in less than a week, so we're at a point where the ratio of time and effort spent on planning to feedback about how well those plans will work is about as unequal as it's going to get. But it does not feel like there is any good, ethical solution. Opening campus is dangerous. Teaching online synchronously is inequitable and invasive. Teaching asynchronously, at least with the student population here, is bad for student learning outcomes and hard on their mental health. No option is appealing.
Universities are resilient institutions, and I don't think academia is going away entirely. Clearly, this pandemic is both exposing and exacerbating inequality in academia, whether it's between well-endowed and tuition-dependent institutions or between tenured and non-tenure track faculty or between traditional college students and those balancing a range of work and career obligations. If there's a silver lining to this pandemic, it is that it serves as a catalyst for social transformation that's badly needed. I hope academia will be a part of that. But history teaches us that's a long process.
Jane, Faculty Member, Large State University in the Midwest
Campus COVID Plan: Students were given the option to return to campus or to take at least some of their classes remotely. Around 85% of the students opted to return for some form of face-to-face instruction. Classes are capped to a maximum of 150 students, and classes spread all over campus to maximize the use of the biggest lecture halls. Everyone in a building is supposed to wear a mask at all times, and if they "forget," we're supposed to provide them one. All desks and tables are supposed to get wiped down at the beginning of class. All papers turned in have to be quarantined for 24 hours before grading. Every classroom is now equipped with a plexiglass shield on wheels that the instructor can stand behind. Lab sections are divided in half to de-densify.
We are basically on our own to enforce compliance. Student ambassadors are supposed to be stationed outside of all the buildings, and pass masks out to students who aren't wearing them before they enter the building. But if a student enters the classroom unmasked, we are supposed to offer them one. If they still refuse, campus security has made it abundantly clear that they will not enforcing compliance. Instead, we're supposed to remind the student what the policy is and offer them a mask, make sure there aren't any other issues, ask them to leave, and if that doesn't work, then the instructor and the rest of the class are supposed to exit. I'm sorry for the language, but it is one of the stupidest fucking things I've ever heard.
I feel really isolated and it’s hard to figure out who is "safe" to talk to. I’m going up for tenure soon, and so I am extra careful about what I say, and who I say it to. At this point, the only other faculty member I've really talked about this with is another assistant professor in my department, and I mostly try not to traumatize her, because she just started.
The official plan has been well-hyped and publicized. However, from what I have heard in the community, the betting odds are that we shut down/go all online at the beginning of October, because tuition is not refundable then.
I feel like college has somehow morphed into an “experience” to be lived. And if students are paying to “experience” college, which includes all the parties and hookups and hang outs, and the university needs that money — well, there isn't any other option but to open and hope for the best.
But I am just so sick and tired of having to think about all of this. It pisses me off that the writing is so clearly on the wall, but we have all decided the best solution is to drive full-speed into it. And universities all over the nation are doing this! One of the first things I ever heard when I started research was that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. I think we are well past the point of insanity. The sooner we can stop pretending that we can power our way through this with grit and determination, the better off we'll all be.
Ruth, Tenure-Track Faculty, Public Liberal Arts University
Campus COVID Plan: Our faculty attempted to push back via a strongly worded and signed letter sent to the board of regents requesting that teachers be allowed to make their own choices as they related to their classes this fall. Ultimately the lack of "yes' or "no" on those demands has led to an absolute cluster fuck of a first week of class wherein faculty are quietly doing what they want. It is clear to me from speaking to my students yesterday that faculty are secretly moving their courses online. I believe by an official tally, only 150 courses are listed as online or hybrid, compared to almost 1,200 face-to-face. Yesterday I asked all three of my courses how many classes they had face-to-face versus online, and all three groups came in with an estimate of around 50/50. I'm betting professors walked into class yesterday, said the course was moving online, and are just hoping they don't get called out for doing it without official permission. I think department chairs are well aware and are fine with it.
You can look at every social media post and letter to students that have been sent out in the past month, delete the words "brave," "unprecedented," and "we believe" and put in the words "stupid", "expected," and "we know." to see the difference between the communicated plan and the actual plan. This isn't a brave attempt at learning, it's a stupid one. Nursing homes and prisons have shown us exactly what we can expect from total institution living. We know we aren't going to make it the entire time. The real question is will we try the same ruse for the spring?
They think students, parents, faculty, and staff are idiots. And maybe we are, because look where we all were yesterday. On campus.
Everyone probably is, ultimately, doing the best that they can given the circumstances. But what if, instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on plexiglass that we will only use for one, potentially two, semesters — why not invest it all in better technology in our classrooms or better distance programs for our campus? Instead of telling students it is their job to keep their distance from one another, why didn't we set up outdoor spaces that would allow for them to be social in safe ways? Instead of throwing up our hands and saying there's just not enough room for students to have their own dorm rooms, why didn't we split the semester into two 8-9 week condensed semesters and hold half of campus at a time? Ultimately, why did we spend three months trying to make the one solution we knew wasn't going to work, work? Why didn't we try anything else?
Cate, Contingent/Adjunct Faculty, Public University in the Midwest
Campus COVID Plan: Everyone on campus must be wearing a mask, students without a mask can face disciplinary action. Giant hand sanitizer stations have been set up around campus. All classroom capacities were reduced by about 60% to socially distance seating. Better filters were installed in air conditioners. Students are required to sign a commitment statement to be responsible and monitor for illness. A free testing site has been set up in one of our parking garages. Our semester started a week early and will end by Thanksgiving, cutting about 1.5 weeks out of the semester. We are largely teaching hybrid face to face classes. Most classrooms were equipped with cameras and microphones to enable Zoom recording, but almost none in the English building where I teach.
I have several pre-existing conditions that make me high risk. But I initially agreed to go back into the classroom because I felt the university was doing as much as they could. I just felt like I could not ask to teach online, because I am contingent faculty, and I was very concerned that funding for the seminar class I teach and love would be cut if it was moved online. As we get closer to classes starting next week, I have increasing anxiety about being exposed and my decision to not update my ADA accommodations to teach remotely.
I feel, pedagogically, that teaching in person is better for me and the students. But I wonder if my desire not to be controlled by my medical conditions/disabilities has made me make a poor choice. Especially since just being in class with an infected person is not enough to count as close contact for contact tracing, which means so I won’t necessarily be notified if one of my students is infected.
As I’ve watched case numbers increase in our area — and what’s happened at UNC and Notre Dame — I’ve begun to think that there’s nothing that will be enough to keep our community safe. Today, the police reported that they’re seeing the same amount of parties as in previous years. We can plead with our students to be responsible, but it’s a lot of pressure to put on them.
I firmly believe that we will not be in person longer than a few weeks. There is just no way we won’t face outbreaks that would make it scandalous to continue. But we’re in a conservative state where our governor has been anti-mask, and the local attitude is that this has been an overblown crisis. As a public institution that depends on state funding, there was just too much public pressure. There were literally members of the state legislature arguing against masks and saying they were a COVID conspiracy last week — and this is the same body we depend on to pass our funding requests.
My part of academia, the humanities, will never be the same. The already tough job market is going to further collapse. It should really prompt departments like the one I graduated from to ask what they are doing teaching grad students and producing PhDs.
Cameron, Contingent Faculty, Public Liberal Arts College in the South
Campus COVID Plan: Our plan is described by administration as "face-to-face with social distance." Faculty were expected to return to in-person teaching unless "at risk" according to a list of conditions and documentation from their doctor. Students were also expected to return to face-to-face classes, with less accommodation for "at-risk" status. Hybrid models of teaching (where half of students attend at one time) are only available to instructors with classrooms deemed incapable of spacing for social distance. Students and faculty were given some basic rules about how to behave in classrooms: wear masks, keep distance, don't move furniture. No information on classroom protocol for positive cases and contact was provided.
This plan is incredibly inadequate, and even more so since the start of classes on August 12th. It focuses on creating an image of a safe campus, but neglects to consider the realities of the virus. No protocol for positive cases in individual classes was developed or shared. Yet, just as classes started, COVID student absences began, and they've increased at a rapid pace. Teaching "normally" is even more impossible. And the only guidance provided is provided via email tidbits from the administration: keep teaching as normal and don't be transparent with students about cases in their classes. Complaints of unethical situations are met with inaction and diversion, as if this is just how it is. As cases rise, maneuvers to preserve the safe image of campus and importance of face-to-face learning have taken priority over honesty and openness.
We’ve formed our first union in the wake of the COVID plan. Grad students and faculty are frustrated because we feel hemmed in and silenced. The pandemic has shed light on the rift between administration and faculty, especially contingent faculty and grad students. What was assumed by some—institutions value academic labor less and less—is now apparent given what instructors are expected to do and endure.
Our admins say they listen and hear, but they do little beyond saying those words. And some don't even do that. I fear that anger is what will remain after COVID has subsided. And healing will be nearly impossible because admin leaders are not held accountable by their institutional systems. Voices for change will be louder, but I fear they won't be heard.
Esperanza, Non-Tenure-Track Faculty, Public University in the Big Ten
Campus COVID Plan: We’re hybrid (which means face to face with distancing, and faculty permitted to choose to teach remote-only). Administration has strongly encouraged faculty to teach face-to-face, in some cases pressuring non-tenured faculty to teach in-person against their own wishes.
It is clear that this so-called plan is ill-conceived and destined for disaster. They are all but admitting it is going to fail. They forced students to sign a “compact,” agreeing to certain behavior standards — students were unable to access the course management interface until they signed — but embedded language that constitutes a waiver of responsibility for the university in the event the student contracts COVID. Then, when there were loud complaints, they altered the language and claimed the waiver was not a waiver at all, we just “misunderstood.” Gaslighting is rampant and unapologetic.
There has been extensive faculty organizing in response, including an open letter, which resulted in the formation of a coalition of faculty, staff, students, & parents advocating for greater transparency and more considered policies, along with a greater voice in decision-making for faculty & students. The pressure exerted by this group has resulted in some changes, but the plan continues to be overall ruinous. They are testing 30,000 out of over 100,000 affiliated persons, and then 1% per day thereafter. Faculty and students are not considered “close contacts” of anyone in a class who may become ill, so they will not be included in contact tracing, which means they have no way of knowing if their preventive measures are working or not. There is also no rubric for how much infection will result in a return to fully remote teaching, and each campus of the university will be permitted to decide independently whether to remain face-to-face or not. It’s one of the craziest, most irresponsible things I have ever witnessed.
I am fearful of the future of academia, because I am unsure whether the administrators making ruinous, dangerous decisions can be held fully accountable. They thrive in chaos, so this is their wheelhouse. I am afraid university life will become increasingly corporate and faculty will be seen increasingly as disposable, and the repositories of culture and knowledge will have to shift elsewhere.
Shelli, Staff and Occasional Lecturer, Public University in the Big Ten
Campus COVID Plan: Each instructor is asked to clean their teaching space before and after uses. Students are being issued PPE. Masks are required everywhere. Signage is everywhere to tell people how to behave. We are mandated to have a plan to monitor who is where and when, which is a mess. I am overseeing ours, and it is not going to work. There is no viable mechanism to track occupancy. Today a campus-wide email went out announcing that all academic buildings are open. Our building manager emailed that any of our employees entering the building must be accounted for and receive permission to be there, since we are not to exceed 25% occupancy, yet the building also has been decreed open to all.
This is not going to work. We do not have the resources — the personnel, or the supplies — to make this work, even if we had a viable plan, which we do not. We closed abruptly in March, went completely online. That mostly worked. We do not have updated occupancy lists, organizational charts, or software because we are a public institution whose budgets have been repeatedly cut over the last two decades. A lot of details fell by the wayside, with nobody to create, update, maintain information. There simply is not and has not been adequate personnel to maintain an infrastructure that might have made this more doable. Now? It is chaos.
I take a lot of confidential calls, and nobody thinks this is a good idea, or that this will work. Further, I am in a department with researchers who do work directly related to such things. They vocally state this will not work. I hear only from grad students at this point, and they are scared and confused. Right now the hot spots in our county are in fraternity row. Students are not back in dorms yet. When they are? Well, as a researcher said yesterday to me, "Look, we were all 19 once. We know how this is going to go."
We start a bit later than other schools, and all bets are that the planning for "on site learning" is for nothing, because it is not going to happen. Further, custodial and housing staff, who historically are underpaid and — at least here — very poorly treated, are being overworked and put in danger, while still being underpaid and poorly treated. Many of us never stopped working the entire summer — and that includes faculty, staff, administrators at all levels — and have had virtually no break whatsoever. I am online and/or on the phone 7 days a week, and I have been since March because there is just nobody else to do a lot of things that must be done.
Stress levels are unbelievable, and we already struggle with significant campus-wide climate issues. People who were considering retiring before are leaving abruptly, and I only wish I could be one of them. This is my alma mater, I love working with students, I have strong connections across campus, but I hate all of this so much. If I could just quit, I would. But I have no other option, and I put on a brave face for everyone, leading as best as I can.
Fear, exhaustion, and constant stress have become our norm. This is not sustainable.
Mary, Librarian, Medium-Sized Urban Community College
Campus COVID Plan: Plans for in-person learning are mostly great! All classes that can be online are, which amounts to about 80%. Some classes have synchronous class meetings. The only classes meeting in-person have limited capacity that is actually limited. Labs, health tech clinicals, and some things like auto tech, welding, and construction classes are in person with limited class numbers in well-ventilated classrooms.
So here's the thing: The learning plan is great. The support plan is problematic. We're supposed to be open to provide equitable access for those students who are unable to use computers at home, but those students are often at higher risk, and have less access to health care. Those who are "bad at technology" really shouldn't pick this semester to start classes and we shouldn't be recruiting them. We can help over the course of time, but it's deeply irresponsible to recruit and encourage tech-illiterate folks to begin college entirely online, especially since several of our year-in-year-out conversations keep circling around not wasting students' time or money. We opened a student help center for late registration for those without technology — and it opened without protective barriers in place or any sanitizing products or anyone to do crowd-control.
We've been back one week. Most of the administrators making all these decisions — and talking up how clean the campus is — are working remotely, which is what everyone should do right now. I think they feel safe working at home or behind their locked office doors, which means that those of us working in areas where anyone can walk in have to do pre-contact tracing: taking names and phone numbers of everyone who comes in.
We have a plan that we're technically following. The unstated parts are all about how student support staff are being treated — and shamed for not doing enough, even though it's not humanly possible. I'm hoping the open parts of campus will close by the end of this month. My stomach hurts every time I get in the car to drive to work. I wish I was drinking more, but I'm too tired.
Maurice, Contingent Faculty, Flagship Public University in the South
Campus COVID Plan: Social distancing in classrooms, masks at all times, testing 5000 people a week, room airflow tests, room limits, the usual.
It is a shitshow. I teach an in-person lab and have 10 students. But a friend let me know that some people came through and put a sign on the door that says only eight people can enter the lab. No notification from anyone to me, the instructor of record, just a sign on the door.
Everything that leadership should do is falling to the instructors. The university is telling us to have synchronous classes — but not to allow students to earn points or get an advantage that isn't also available in an asynchronous method. So now I have both a synchronous class and an asynchronous class, but I’m only getting paid for one. The university is also telling us we need to be mindful that some people will not have access to the internet — but why are they allowed to sign up for an online class if they don't have internet, and what am I supposed to do about that?
The leadership is giving instructors maximum "freedom," but in reality are just setting us up to be the fall guys when their lack of leadership creates a giant failure. I recently got an email saying instructors should go to rooms before classes start and mark off seating so students are separated. How did that fall to the instructors? Because we are the ones who will be in the room, and they know it.
Most of us are resigned to the fact that we can either teach or lose our jobs. In my case, I have a second job for the income, but need the university job for the insurance. Better to get COVID with insurance than without, right?
Josephine, Visiting Assistant Professor, Private Liberal Arts College in the Midwest
Campus COVID Plans: We have already been open for two weeks. Just before starting, they told us to move lectures online — but keep small-group discussions, office hours, and labs in person.
I am immunocompromised, so I’ve been scared — but I thought there was a robust test-and-trace plan in place. Guess what: the first case happened this week, and there was not. There’s a total vacuum of responsibility. There is no mechanism to inform faculty whether their class is the one affected. There’s also apparently no plan after there's a positive case as to what we should do — Should we move online? For how long? What do we do about HIPPA?
I can already see that students are going to be blamed when we eventually have to close — and we will eventually have to close, right? Students will be blamed for having parties, and for not social distancing. We've already had an email from the college president about student parties. But the real problem is the lack of even a bare minimum of planning by the administration. Sure, students shouldn’t have parties. But maybe, just maybe, we should have had a plan to deal with even the one case we’ve had so far. A plan to tell faculty if their classes have been affected. Guidance as to whether and when our classes should move all-online if our classes are affected. Robust contact-tracing and testing.
Instead of taking responsibility, administrators are taking student dollars — and then will blame students for all coronavirus outbreaks. It’s the students who have been informing faculty of their status, organizing testing, and doing informal tracing. They want so badly to stay on campus, and most of them are showing a level of respect and care that they are not getting credit for.
Marie, Tenure-Track Faculty, Small Public University in the South
Campus COVID Plan: Everyone is required to wear masks in public spaces on campus. We are also expected to complete daily "wellness screenings" to report possible symptoms of COVID (this is completely voluntary and the administration has avoided any question of what will happen to faculty, staff, or students who do not comply). Classrooms were modified; chairs were removed and/or rearranged to allow for six feet of distance between students. Faculty are expected to assign seats and maintain seating charts to facilitate contact tracing. Faculty and students are responsible for cleaning classroom stations between classes. Faculty were given the freedom to choose how they would deliver their classes, but the administration more or less insisted on some in-person component. Faculty had to specifically request online-only schedules if they were high-risk. We know that there were a few students who tested positive for COVID while they were moving into the dorms last week, but since then there have been no updates on cases on campus.
Like with so many other things, the pandemic is simply hastening the collapse of a system that was already in decline. Higher ed was already in trouble before the pandemic, and unless things start to change, I think a lot of universities and colleges — probably including my own — will close their doors. The business model of higher ed is simply untenable, and the only way to rectify it is a complete overhaul of the system.
This experience has pretty much made up my mind that I want out of academia. To be fair, I have been considering non-ac job options for several years, but this has really crystalized my feeling that a.) despite the years of work, financial investment, and emotional investment, higher ed does not give a shit about me; b.) if I am going to be a cog in a machine, I should at least make decent money; and c.) higher ed is going to implode — now sooner rather than later. I would rather leave on my own terms that go down with the ship.
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