On Friday, June 26, Kutztown University and PA State System of Higher Education revealed the Guide to Fall 2020 Semester. Note that KU’s president says the plan is a “living document.” I hope so. This is my plea for changes that will protect all students, faculty, staff, and their families.
I am well aware that many jobs can’t be done online, & I am grateful for the medical professionals, janitorial & facilities staff, grocery workers, checkers, restaurant staff, delivery persons, & others who risk their health and their loved one’s health every day.
Most teachers and higher ed staff don’t fall into the same category as those persons, however. I know I can do my job online, even though I prefer f2f for both pedagogical and personal reasons. Most teachers in most disciplines can, & most staff persons can. Before you @ me, I know it’s not all. In the sudden shift to online teaching in Spring 2020, many of us stumbled, but we also demonstrated that we can do this work remotely when circumstances call for it, and we can do it even better if given adequate time to prepare. (And for the record, many faculty are talented online instructors, and their courses may be even more successful online than f2f.)
I look forward to a return to f2f work, eventually. I miss the teaching methods and social interactions that working on campus allows. Really, I miss being in the same room with my students and collaborating with colleagues. I even miss my cramped office. But you don’t have to believe that online work is ideal, or even like it very much, to admit we can do it satisfactorily. And a pandemic is a very good reason to allow or even embrace a practice you may find to be less than ideal.
It may be that KU and other PA public schools will move the majority of classes online. As of this writing, however, professors have not been informed of any pending changes to their f2f schedules and have been given a process for applying to teach online in Fall 2020. Without more information, many of us are anxious about the application process as it suggests, first, that those who don’t apply will be teaching on campus, and second, it limits who can request the move to online work.
Families at Risk
The limited circumstances under which faculty and staff can apply to work online or with what HR calls “a flexible work arrangement” embodies an approach that likewise does not consider the wider picture. The official process by which to request remote work leaves those of us with at-risk family members out in the cold. In the current version of KU’s and the PA State System’s plan, having immediate family in risk groups is not a reason to apply to teach online.
Students, too, are being asked to work with the Disability Services Office if they wish adjustments to learning environment, implying that family-related risks are not a part of the equation for them. Again, this may not be the case, but these are easy conclusions based in the information provided.
Today, my husband, mother, father, and mother-in-law are all in risk groups for hospitalization and death if they contract COVID-19. If I return to f2f teaching, I become a dangerous potential infection vector for them. To keep them safe, I will have to stop living with my husband and find someone to look after my parents and mother-in-law. If any of them get sick, I’ll need someone else to take care of them. You can imagine why I’d prefer to teach online: I can both do my job & keep them safe.
I very much want to do my job. I love working at KU. My students, teaching, and the community mean a great deal to me. I’ve dedicated fourteen years to this university, and I have always intended to retire from it. After a year on the faculty, I asked my husband to give up a lucrative job and move to Kutztown. He did. When my parents retired, I asked them to move to the area so I could take care of them. They did. My mother-in-law soon followed. As a family, we are all-in on KU. I am saddened that PASSHE’s current policy does not extend compassion to them as part of the community.
I am deeply troubled as well for the students who will find they may not take some classes remotely and will likewise have to risk exposure to COVID-19, and then either expose their families or isolate from them. What’s more, current policy will likely shrink the available classes.
The only official option provided to those faculty and staff with at-risk family is unpaid leave. (The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides paid leave if a family member is currently infected with COVID-19 or under quarantine, or if a child’s school is closed due to COVID-19.)
I have heard talk of an “unofficial process” for those with at-risk family. They can work with chairs and deans who will try to accommodate them. If this is true, it’s a step in the right direction. But it begs several questions: Why is it unofficial, rather than a transparent part of the process? Why haven’t all faculty been informed of it? Open communication would certainly put a lot of minds at ease.Then, what happens if these faculty cannot be accommodated? Well, back to unpaid leave & cancelled classes, I suppose.
If classes are not canceled, administration will have to reassign them. The remaining faculty have full schedules, begging the question, who will teach these courses? Will adjuncts be hired, put at risk at a reduced cost to the university? That would not only be ethically gross, but interesting in the face of the Chancellor’s statewide order to reduce the number of adjunct faculty.
Please take a look at this piece in The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, "Combating White Supremacy in a Pandemic: Antiracist, Anticapitalist, and Socially Just Policy Recommendations in Response to COVID-19." The authors spell out how responses to the pandemic often ignore "the ethical and social impact ...in terms of race, gender, disability, sexuality, citizenship status, economic status, and other marginalizing factors." A must read. In his section, Seth Kahn hits the nail on the head:
"Nobody will be surprised if at least some of those contingent faculty whose jobs disappeared are rehired if enrollments are more stable than expected; try to pay attention to faculty who were laid off or non-renewed and are rehired into worse positions: long-term lecturers, for example, rehired in part-time lines with no benefits but teaching the same loads and courses. Disaster capitalism (Klein 2007) is real. Conversely, contingent faculty in other places (frequently posted in social media) are reporting offers of increased workload, but with no guarantee that it will extend beyond one semester, and rarely offering access to medical insurance that those faculty are generally denied because they don’t teach enough."
We need to be vigilant about how our most vulnerable faculty are treated--was well as our most vulnerable students.
While some comments out of the PA State System have suggested otherwise, the vast majority of teachers are not driven by narrow self-interest. I’ve dedicated my adult life to teaching, so my concern very much includes students. Some of KU’s reopening policies are very generous to these students financially. At the same time, like faculty and staff, they are being asked to document disabilities in order to request alternative learning environments. Some may not have the resources to navigate that process or family who can aid them in advocating. (For an excellent and in-depth look at the many issues affecting students, again, please read "Combating White Supremacy in a Pandemic: Antiracist, Anticapitalist, and Socially Just Policy Recommendations in Response to COVID-19.")
Our new APSCUF president, Dr. Jamie Martin, emailed faculty across the state system to express her dismay with current reopening policy, and I hope that the union and all of my colleagues will fight like hell. In the meantime, I am preparing for a possible return to campus. What will that look like?
The Realities of F2F in Fall 2020
As described the Guide to Fall 2020 Semester, f2f classes will involve masks and barriers; social distancing and disinfectant wipes. Students will often see half or fewer of their classmates at one time, as well as staggered lines to get into and out of rooms and buildings. These are all necessary mitigations, and if we must return, I am grateful they will be in place.
While on campus, students, faculty, & staff will share anxiety over those who won’t follow guidelines—right now, we’re directed to report those who won’t wear masks, for instance, which does nothing to protect the other persons in the room at the moment of the violation. (No word on what follows that reporting.) As masks have become politicized, this is a genuine concern.
Moreover, the necessity of the guidelines does not negate their effects on teaching and learning, which will of course be very different in these circumstances. So, faculty and staff aren’t weighing the benefits of online work as compared to the version of f2f classes & interactions we held pre-pandemic. We are weighing f2f work that comes with real risk for the whole community and online work that safeguards us until circumstances improve.
Uncertainty and Anxiety
While I don't like disclosing my personal medical history publicly, I’ll reveal that I have both asthma and high blood pressure. These are listed among the diseases that put one in a risk group, and, in turn, mean I am eligible to apply for “a flexible work arrangement.” So why I am still concerned? Why worry that I can’t apply based on my family’s risk alone?
First, I’m not a selfish monster. If I am granted an online schedule due to health conditions, other teachers and staff without applicable health conditions, but with families at risk, are still in trouble. While no details about students’ options have been made public to us, I fear they are in the same boat.
Second, I have no idea if my conditions will be deemed serious enough to merit a move to online work. The language used by HR suggests that after “validation,” impact on operations will be considered before requests are approved:
“Validated requests (minus medical documentation) will be sent to the appropriate supervisory area to determine the impact on the university’s operational capabilities and whether a flexible work arrangement in duties, schedule, location, or modality will be granted.”
Will the appropriate supervisory area (my chair? the dean?) decide that my heath is not as important as this impact? I can’t know with the information I have been given. What terribly dire “impact on the university’s operational capabilities” could my working from home even cause? They don’t say. When will I be informed of the status of my request? I have no idea. Is KU dedicated to the aforementioned unofficial process? Is it just a rumor?
A Different Way Forward
I understand that the PA State System may fear that, if we go fully to online teaching or if too many teachers are allowed to opt into it, students will pull out and attend schools that are fully f2f, or that they will defer attending. Of course some students may do that. (Some may have very good reasons for doing so, too, which I won’t get into here, in an already long essay.)
I have faith in the empathy of those students who can partake in online learning. KU students are neither cruel nor superficial. They may prefer f2f classes, as I do, but they also don’t want to risk the lives of teachers’ and classmates’ families so that they can get one semester of their preferred instructional mode. I believe that they know these are exceptional circumstances and will work with us online for now, especially if we dedicate time and funds to getting them internet access and laptops instead of plastic barriers and disinfectant wipes.
So what might the PA State System do instead? Here are some approaches working at other universities:
Once the U.S. gets a handle on the pandemic and once a vaccine is widely distributed, we can enjoy the benefits of f2f interaction. In the meantime, I ask the PA State System and administration: make decisions that will keep the entire community safe.