University professors fear returning to campus as coronavirus cases surge

Laura Crary, an art history professor at a liberal arts college in South Carolina, is anxious to return to the classroom, so much so that she was prescribed anti-anxiety medications for the first time in her life.

“I am 62.5 years old, which means I’m four years from full retirement age, or I’d probably retire right now because I’m very nervous,” she said.

While the final fall 2020 plans at her college are still pending, professors at her university were told that conducting solely online classes was not an option. Crary asked that NBC News not name the college.

As coronavirus cases start to surge in more than 30 states across the U.S., some professors are pushing back when it comes to returning to campus for in-person teaching. More than 50% of colleges and universities have announced they will be hosting professors or students back on campus in the next few months, per data tracked by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

NBC News’ Social Newsgathering team spoke to professors at various colleges who expressed fears of physically returning back to work.

“There’s a tremendous amount of insecurity and a tremendous amount of anxiety,” Crary said.

“All it’s gonna take is one really bad case — student, faculty or staff — and the whole house of cards is going to come crashing down. And I don’t want that case to be me,” she added.

Crary is responsible for her older parents and is a single parent to a college-aged daughter. They are counting on her to remain healthy.

“When I decided to go into teaching art history, I didn’t think I was going into a life-threatening field,” she said.

Melanie Smith, a writing program senior lecturer at Boston University, has had asthma since she was young, but her occasional congestion and breathing issues don’t fit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria of people who are at an increased risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.

That’s concerning for the 58-year-old because, come fall, she’s expected to teach her class in person.

“I love my students, I love what I teach, and yet this fall I am anticipating this semester with a good bit of dread,” Smith said.

On paper, Smith, who has a background in public health, knows she doesn’t look like someone who could be impacted by COVID-19. But she said caring for her older parents and living alone without someone to help her if she gets sick has heightened her anxiety around returning to work.

As part of its fall plans, Boston University has launched Learn From Anywhere, a modality that will let students take courses remotely.

However, professors are currently required to return to campus to teach in person. There isn’t an option to work remotely.

Boston University philosophy professors Daniel Star and Russell Powell wrote an open letter to the university urging it to allow professors to make their own decisions about returning to campus. Their online petition has garnered more than 15,000 signatures.

Star and Powell said the university did not respond to their letter nor their petition but eventually offered faculty members the option to request a “workplace adjustment” where they must provide medical documentation to prove their exemption.

Professors were given a small window to make the case for medical exemptions, but it wasn’t enough time, Powell said.

Boston University told NBC News its faculty was involved in the development of its remote learning program.

In a letter to faculty, Boston University Provost Jean Morrison said students and parents were “eager” to return to campus.

Other universities in the Boston area, such as University of Massachusetts Boston and Harvard, have decided to continue online instruction for the fall semester.

“It would be nice to see BU taking the moral ground and defending their people and faculty,” Star said.

When asked about the decision in regard to nearby universities, the university said, “Boston University’s decisions are made on behalf of the institution and not related to those of other institutions of higher education.”

“I don’t know if BU administrators realize they have done significant damage to faculty trust,” Smith said.

At the University of Notre Dame, both faculty and students are required to return to campus this fall. Faculty and staff may receive an exemption if they qualify for a “reasonable accommodation” by falling in one of the CDC high-risk categories. To apply, they must submit their medical information to the school.

Eileen Hunt Botting, a political science professor at the Catholic university, said she knew many professors who “didn’t even bother [to apply] because the criteria was so narrow.”

“I really want to believe they’re not going to do it, but if they do, this is going to be a massive tragedy for higher education. They’re walking into it for purely financial reasons,” Hunt Botting said.

In a letter to faculty, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said, “students and faculty from whom I have heard missed the experience of residential life, personal interaction between students and faculty in and outside the classroom and involvement with student organizations. These are all critical parts of the education we strive to offer at Notre Dame.”

At Georgia Tech, professors who are 65 and older or have qualifying medical conditions may request alternate work arrangements.

Randall Engle, a 73-year-old cognitive psychology professor there, will not be teaching his class in the fall.

“I’ve had a few medical conditions in recent years and there’s some anxiety there,” he said.

The requests are processed on a case-by-case basis by the instructor’s department head and the dean, he explained: “You have to make an application. It’s not a guarantee, but at least in my department, anyone who’s 65 and over or has a pre-existing health condition has been allowed to schedule their class online.”

Nga Lee “Sally” Ng, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, values in-person teaching with her students. Yet, she said she feels it shouldn’t come at the expense of health and life, especially when there’s a remote teaching option available.

“Instructors should not be forced to teach in person, and the choice to teach remotely should not require anyone to disclose their personal health information,” she said.

More than 800 of the 1,100 faculty members at Georgia Tech have signed a letter demanding to make remote teaching the default teaching mode for the fall term.

Georgia Tech is still determining how its courses will be delivered in the fall. It wrote on its website that it aims “to retain as much face-to-face interaction as possible.”

Cornell University is taking a different approach, conducting a survey among faculty to see who would be comfortable teaching on campus as well as offering them the option to teach remotely.

Charles Van Loan, dean of faculty at Cornell, said, “One-third of faculty planned to teach online, one-third said they won’t teach in person at all and one-third said it depends on what their classroom looks like.”

Courtney Roby, a classics associate professor at Cornell, is one faculty member who opted to teach remotely due to a health condition.

“I was lucky to be at Cornell and not other institutions imposing Draconian regulations to get faculty to get back into the classroom regardless of their own health conditions and family conditions,” she said. “I understand they have their own reasons, but I don’t see how that creates a better environment for students or faculty.”

“We all want to be in the classroom,” she explained. “No one is excited about the prospect of teaching online again. People who opt for online are doing so for good reason.”

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