Protective barrier: Greg Doan works on a protective barrier at the Indiana State University carpentry shop on Thursday afternoon. Tribune-Star/Austen Leake
Protective barrier: Greg Doan works on a protective barrier at the Indiana State University carpentry shop on Thursday afternoon. Tribune-Star/Austen Leake
At Indiana State University, as at other Hoosier colleges and universities, faculty have wide-ranging opinions about the return to campus and face-to-face classes this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

ISU has announced it will resume on-campus instruction this fall, although with modifications to promote safety.

Faculty and staff are concerned, especially those at higher risk, said Liz Brown, ISU faculty senate chair. The university put in place a process to request temporary accommodations for those at higher risk for severe illness.

She believes the administration has done a good job of consulting with the Faculty Senate, although she believes it could have done a better job of communicating plans. Uneven communication across the university "causes anxiety for people," she said.

Among those not happy with the return to in-person classes is James Gustafson, ISU associate professor of history.

"I think they're in an impossible position," Gustafson said. "The scientific community at large is screaming for us [ISU and higher education] to hold off on having in-person classes."

Nationally, the debate is playing out as well, with many colleges announcing a return to in-person classes, often with "hybrid" class options that combine in person and online.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The coronavirus pandemic has left higher-education leaders facing difficult decisions about when to reopen campuses and how to go about it."

The Chronicle is tracking individual colleges’ plans, and most say they are planning for an in-person fall semester. It is currently tracking about 1,170 colleges. As of July 14, about 56% were planning for in-person classes; 30% proposed a hybrid model; 9% were planning for online; 3.9% were considering a range of scenarios; and 1.5% were waiting to decide.

At ISU, faculty and students will be required to wear face coverings in all instructional settings. Classes will be offered face-to-face, with some courses being online and others using a hybrid combination of in-person and online. Adjustments will be made to promote social distancing, which includes reducing the number of students in classrooms and moving some classes to larger spaces on campus.

Employees at higher risk for severe illness with COVID-19, or those who have a household member at higher risk, can request temporary accommodations, which may include workplace modifications, the opportunity to work remotely or the ability to use vacation, sick, or unpaid leave.

ISU's Brown, a department chair and professor of math/computer science, is preparing for the return to classes in August. In her 50s, she shares concerns about COVID-19 and potential risks, but has not requested a "temporary accommodation."

For Brown, there will be some adjustments, including larger classrooms as well as some hybrid classes. The masking requirement in instructional settings "helps make it easier for faculty to think about how the fall might go," she said.

Because of the pandemic, the university is being flexible with accommodations.

"The bar is set lower than it would be for normal kinds of accommodations," she said. "You don't need the level of documentation you might otherwise need. Basically a note from your health care provider suffices."

Given the unknowns associated with COVID-19, "We're having to plan for all kinds of options," including the potential of the university having to shut down again, similar to what happened in spring, she said.

But if that happened, faculty would be better prepared the next time around.

Her preference remains face-to-face instruction. "I love being in the classroom with my students and helping them learn," Brown said. "Most of us feel that way."

The upcoming year will be anything but normal, she said. Faculty have to think about many details, such as student traffic flow in classrooms and buildings.

"Things we never gave a second thought to normally, we're having to think about," Brown said. "That's a little overwhelming for a lot of people."

Gustafson, meanwhile, remains critical of the return to campus.

On July 10, the U.S. announced more than 64,000 new cases of COVID-19, a record increase for the pandemic at that time. "In the interconnected world we live in ... you can't pretend that doesn't impact us," he said.

Bringing thousands of students from across the state and country "to our small town ... is going to be a problem," Gustafson said.

ISU and other colleges are making decisions that are revenue based, he said.

"It's a difficult situation they find themselves in," Gustafson said. If they don't bring students back to campus, they fear the economic fallout.

He believes it's inevitable there will be an outbreak, and "we'll push through until it happens — until someone from the outside makes the decision to pull the plug on it."

Purdue University

On April 21, Purdue University was among the first institutions of higher education to announce an in-person return to campus. In May, President Mitch Daniels wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post that it would be “anti-scientific” and “an unacceptable breach of duty” not to reopen. He wrote in part:

"Forty-five thousand young people — the biggest student population we’ve ever had — are telling us they want to be here this fall. To tell them, 'Sorry, we are too incompetent or too fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education,' would be a gross disservice to them and a default of our responsibility," Daniels wrote.

A clash with a faculty member concerned about face-to-face teaching was widely reported. "I don't want to think about face-to-face teaching the hordes of students I usually teach until there is a vaccine," Alice Pawley, associate professor of engineering education, told Inside Higher Ed.

Deborah Nichols, chair of Purdue's university senate, says a survey administered to more than 7,200 faculty, staff and graduate students in early June showed 68% reported high stress and anxiety about re-opening in the fall. Also, 53% felt unsafe returning to campus in the fall, while 62% reported feeling unsafe teaching/interacting with students.

Concerns only increased in a follow-up survey conducted between June 25 and July 2nd.

Those surveyed "are highly concerned," said Nichols, an associate professor of human development.

While Purdue leadership initially appeared to take a hardline, "One thing I appreciate about the administration is that they are trying to follow the science, and science is constantly changing," she said.

Originally, testing of students for COVID wasn't required, but now, students must have a negative test before returning to campus; Purdue will pay for those tests.

Also, there has been more information about conducting hybrid classes, a combination of in-person and online.

Nichols has a class with 80 students, and anticipates meeting with half of them in person at a time, with lectures and other materials online.

College "will look very different," she said. "I think it's too simplistic to say it's face-to-face in the traditional way."

The administration is listening more and making adjustments, she said. "As the university senate, we pushed to have more constituencies on campus involved in high-level discussions" and an opportunity to provide feedback from those groups.

That lead to weekly meetings involving the provost and representatives of the university senate, staff organizations, undergraduates and graduate students. Those representatives raise questions and concerns, and the provost provides answers.

"My sense is people are getting more nervous because of what is going on nationally," Nichols said. Too much focus has been on mortality, and while that may not affect the young as much, morbidity — and long-term impacts of the virus — have not been discussed as much.

"I had a student diagnosed in April and it took multiple weeks for this person to feel they didn't want to just sleep all the time," she said.

Indiana University


IU has announced students will return for fall semester with a mix of in-person and online courses, with extensive public health measures.

This past week, the university announced that students returning for the fall semester on the Bloomington campus will have to be tested for COVID-19 first; the test must take place within 10 days before arriving on campus. It applies to students living on and off-campus.

At IUPUI, IU Southeast, and IU South Bend, the students who are living in residence halls must also get tested for COVID.

John Watson, IU Faculty Council co-chair, said the university "got organized really quickly ... I think we've done a really good job of getting out in front of this. There is still work going on, but a lot of planning has happened and there has been good involvement of the faculty."

The biggest concern is "keeping everyone safe," he said, and faculty are "deeply concerned" about students' health.

With the plans in place so far, "I'm feeling comfortable," he said. For at-risk employees, there is a process to request accommodations.

Spacing students in classrooms is a logistical problem being dealt with by the university, he said.

But Jeffrey Isaac, IU professor of political science, has a different take.

"For months I have argued that while the pressure to reopen the IU Bloomington campus is real, the dangers of doing so are too great. As the virus continues to spread throughout the country, and as we still have no real national policy for dealing with it, the dangers seem greater now," he said in an email.

He believes that campus living, dining, and in-person learning "will be a classic 'super-spreader' situation, and that the health and very lives of many students, staff, and faculty will be placed at risk."

Also, the new IU rules "have no bearing on student life off campus. Thousands of students live off campus. They spend a lot of time partying. All summer long students around town have been ignoring social distancing and mask-wearing. When 30,000 students return to town in August, and the greek houses open, there is bound to be spread of the virus. This endangers everyone in Bloomington and Monroe County."

Isaac said he wishes IU "had from the start put in place a very serious plan for very serious and high-quality distance learning."

Chuck Carney, IU director of media relations, said, "We know a lot of faculty have concerns and we appreciate that; we want to make sure we address those as well as we can."

Faculty council "has been very involved. We've gotten a lot of feedback ... it's just a unique time and we're trying to work through it as best we can ... We want to make sure everybody not just feels safe, but is safe."

The COVID-19 pandemic "is a challenge for everybody. Our faculty are pretty resilient," he said. They know it's not a permanent situation, "but this is where we are right now."
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