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Penn State reopening plan draws criticism

Faculty, students pen letter demanding more input, info

More than 1,000 Penn State faculty members and several hundred graduate students have signed an open letter to university administrators demanding more autonomy in determining how they’ll teach classes, a promise of job security for those not on a tenure track and more transparency and influence in making decisions as Penn State gets ready to reopen this fall after the corona­virus shutdown.

“The plan (university) President (Eric) Barron rolled out on

(June 14) is unbelievably vague — despite being three months in the making — and it doesn’t address any of the concerns we expressed in our open letter,” said lead co-signer Sarah Townsend, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese. “Will faculty be able to take the measures necessary to protect our own safety, along with the safety of our students, staff and the broader community?”

The plan announced by Barron was “overarching,” and will be sketched out in detail during the summer with heavy involvement from faculty, staff and students, according to an emailed statement from university spokesman Wyatt DuBois. “There is a comprehensive effort underway so that faculty can ask questions about the return to campus and help shape the plans,” DuBois wrote. “(Those) plans will be shaped by new and continued collaborations.”

There needs to be “autonomy” for instructors on whether to teach in-person, online or some combination of those; “rigorous system of free, widespread” testing, tracing and isolation; clear procedures for social distancing and masking; the right for faculty to bar noncompliant students; and enforcement protocols that don’t involve campus or community police, according to the faculty open letter.

The university is planning “comprehensive prevention and public health procedures and strategies, a robust testing and contact-tracing program,” an isolation program, and physical modifications like Plexiglas shields and one-way traffic patterns, according to a news release that accompanied Barron’s announcement. It’s also asking students to self-quarantine before returning, to avoid bringing in coronavirus from the community; and it will ask them to pledge compliance with COVID-19 safety expectations, according to that news release.

Many concerns

Many faculty members resent “being kept in the dark for months” while the university developed the plan, according to Townsend, who spoke to a reporter by phone.

The task forces that created the plan comprised 250 people, but only 16 faculty members, most with administrative functions who don’t teach a lot, according to Townsend.

“Frankly, it’s a little incredible that the university thinks we should just head back into class,” Townsend said. “There are all sorts of concerns.”

Most faculty would prefer in-person classes, but health matters need to take priority, she said.

“Employees shouldn’t have to risk their health to perform their jobs,” she stated.

Some faculty members would prefer the school not to have any in-person classes, she said. She thinks that would be “wisest.”

“But there’s a lot of debate,” she said.

The best model may be one adopted by the University of California at Berkeley, where she worked previously, in which the default will be online, with professors permitted to teach in person where logistically feasible and where there’s good reason, such as for courses like theater and ones that involve labs, she said.

“The health of faculty, staff and students remains the university’s top priority,” the university’s DuBois said in an email. “There are processes and protocols being put in place to help support safe working environments across the campuses that will meet or exceed the expectations set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.”

In addition to establishing “enhanced cleaning protocols,” the university has evaluated all 1,700 of its classrooms, seminar rooms and labs to determine social distancing requirements, and discussions are ongoing on “de-densifying” the classes that will take place in them, he wrote.

“Room layouts are being reworked; larger and alternative spaces are being identified; room capacities have been revised with social distancing as the guide; and a distanced space for instructors has been established,” DuBois wrote.

The university is keeping in mind that some faculty are vulnerable to the virus and will be making adjustments for those who are “immunocompromised, live with someone who is immunocompromised, or have some other special circumstance that should be considered.” DuBois wrote. The university is planning a “flexible approach” that will include remote learning.

“We are asking faculty members to develop their teaching plans for doing this in the fall, and to discuss them with their unit and department leads,” he wrote.

Faculty members are chairing the “instructional team” that is developing classroom recommendations as well as a public health and scientific advisory group and a health resources group, DuBois wrote.

All employees are invited to participate in a survey “to hear and understand the perspectives of faculty,” he added.

Student attendance

Polls show students want to come back in person, which is understandable, especially given the cost of a university education, but many probably don’t appreciate the kind of “disjointed” experience that may result from the necessary precautions, Townsend said.

Depending on classroom size, there are likely to be courses where half of the students come in person and the others are online one day, with that arrangement reversed the next day — a strategy likely to generate confusion, Townsend said.

In the case of language courses, masking will eliminate an important learning component — mouth reading, she said.

College students are also almost all young and thus at less risk from the corona­virus than many faculty members, she added.

It might be best for public health if the university stayed online and reduced tuition by half, but that’s not going to happen, she stated.

Many faculty members don’t object to the reopening plan, but are concerned about having the “resources and the tools to do our jobs well,” said Bob Trumpbour, professor of communications at Penn State Altoona.

Some concerns center around how big the classrooms are, the number of students in them and the possible need for some of the instruction to be online, he said.

It’s complicated, with “no one size fits all,” and the need to “figure out combinations and strategies,” he said.

There are also concerns about how the university expects to handle situations like students refusing to wear masks, he said.

Getting through the final days of last semester as the pandemic hit was “brutal,” and there is concern that some previous difficulties are being underestimated, Trumpbour indicated.

“It’s not that easy,” he said.

The open letter also demands an extension of “fixed-term” faculty contracts through the coming school year, to reassure non-tenure-track faculty and others working to prepare for the new semester that their efforts won’t be wasted, given the university’s having already furloughed 2,000 employees and hinting that more furloughs and possible layoffs could be coming, according to Townsend.

About a dozen faculty members wrote the open letter, starting before the university’s public announcement, based on prior information about its intentions, according to Townsend.

Penn State tends to be “pretty top-down,” with decision making that is often “hierarchical” and “very opaque,” she said.

Faculty and staff at the university are not unionized, according to Townsend.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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