Many in KU community say they’re wary about a return to physical instruction as COVID-19 pandemic rages on

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

University of Kansas students visit and pass between classes outside of Wescoe Hall and across Jayhawk Boulevard from Strong Hall on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015.

As the University of Kansas plans for in-person classes in the fall after a COVID-19-induced hiatus, many students and employees aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of returning to campus.

That’s according to an informal survey conducted by the Journal-World in the last two weeks. Nearly 90 students, parents, staff members, faculty members and graduate student instructors reached out to the newspaper to share their thoughts on returning to campus in August, and almost 70% of them said they were “not at all comfortable” taking, teaching or sending their student to in-person classes in the fall.

The majority of them, 60%, also said outright that Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer haven’t communicated effectively with the KU community.

KU announced at the beginning of May that it intended to reopen for the fall semester through a phased plan guided by public health officials, and in-person instruction is set to resume on Aug. 24. University leaders have announced some measures meant to keep the university community safe and slow the spread of the virus — they’ve mandated face coverings, and they’ll be ending the in-person portion of the semester just before Thanksgiving.

Those measures, however, haven’t been enough to assuage fears held by many members of the KU community.

Fifty-five of 62 instructors — or 88.7% — who responded to the Journal-World’s informal survey said they were not comfortable teaching in-person classes with the current level of information they had from KU officials. And 62.7% of student respondents said they weren’t comfortable paying the same tuition rates if COVID-19 forces another switch to online learning.

But many of the respondents said that despite the anxieties associated with a return to in-person classes, they wouldn’t be changing their plans for the fall.

Nearly 60% of people who took the survey said they hadn’t considered not coming back to KU or taking a semester off. And just over 60% of people said that if COVID-19 forces KU to move classes online again, it wouldn’t affect their plans to take or teach classes.

In an email to the Journal-World, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson reiterated recent university communications when asked if Girod and Bichelmeyer had a message for people who were scared to return in the fall.

“While no one can ever promise complete safety to another – this was true prior to COVID-19 and will be true after – we have campus workgroups exploring options that support greater safety for our campus,” she said. She added that much of the onus for safety will be on the community, and that it’s crucial for people to wear masks and practice social distancing.

KU’s situation of trying to reopen amid the pandemic isn’t unique: 65% of colleges and universities have definitively said they plan on holding in-person classes in the fall, according to a database of 980 institutions compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

‘Like a cruise ship with unlimited port access’

Among the faculty members who have voiced anxieties about reopening campus is the head of KU’s University Senate, a large governing body that recommends policies on behalf of faculty, staff and students.

University Senate President Sanjay Mishra, who is a professor in the business school, said faculty are simply scared about returning to in-person instruction in the fall.

“Faculty, I think, have spoken very clearly,” Mishra said. “And they’re afraid because there’s so many unknowns.”

What is known, though, is that safely managing an infectious disease on a campus KU’s size — and without knowing what students and faculty do outside of controlled environments — is nearly impossible. Mishra said a faculty member who understands and studies viruses recently gave him an analogy of what the fall semester would look like.

“Bringing all the students into Lawrence is like a cruise ship with unlimited port access,” Mishra recalled — a reference to several major outbreaks that occurred on cruise liners early on in the pandemic.

Other faculty members voiced similar concerns in the Journal-World’s survey, with some choosing to remain anonymous (an option the newspaper made available). A common theme in the free response section of the survey was that faculty wanted to be made aware of current COVID-19 data.

“I want data that tells us what is safe. I want to know our COVID numbers. We are a Research One university. Surely lack of sufficient data means something to us,” Sherrie Tucker, a professor of American Studies said in the survey. “The last thing we need is for KU to value (money) over bodies. If I were a student, I would be much more likely to enroll in a university that had everyone’s safety in mind than one that aimed to be a comprehensive service provider for those who feel safe, data be damned.”

Lua Yuille, a law professor who serves as president of the KU Faculty Senate, told the Journal-World she wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable teaching in the fall. The reason, though, is that she mainly teaches graduate students, who she thinks would be more conscious of the need for social distancing and wearing a mask than undergraduates.

“At the same time, I am a Black woman so I don’t always have the luxury to think through the range of my concerns,” she said. “I feel like my range of ambivalence doesn’t match the range of ambivalence I’m hearing from the rest of my colleagues.”

Mixed messages

Since the pandemic began, top KU officials have semi-regularly communicated with the university community about aspects of the reopening process. Last week, Girod and Bichelmeyer began hosting short virtual updates detailing the latest developments for KU.

Faculty members, though, say the messaging from the university has often left them confused about their responsibilities, and even whether or not they have a choice to teach remotely in the fall if concerned for their health.

Maryemma Graham, a distinguished professor in the English department who also founded the KU Project on the History of Black Writing, told the Journal-World that faculty members were initially under the impression that they could choose whether or not to teach remotely due to the pandemic.

In recent days, though, that has shifted because of messaging from the university, and faculty members now feel they have no choice but to come to campus unless they can demonstrate, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that they’re at high risk of developing the illness’ most dangerous symptoms, Graham said.

Barcomb-Peterson said faculty “have many options in how they teach this fall,” but did not elaborate on what those options were or whether they would be open to all faculty members.

Beyond the logistics, Graham said she has ethical concerns about how KU has pitched its return to students and faculty.

Graham said that based on current modeling for classes, most large lectures will have to be split into sections where everyone can have sufficient space for social distancing. In theory, she said, for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday course, students might only come to a physical class once a week and would do the rest of the work online.

“So you’ll get to see those students maybe once a week in person,” she said. “The vast majority of the work is going to be done online anyway, so why bring students to campus just to take most of their classes online? It feels nightmarish to me.”

Barcomb-Peterson disputed some of those characterizations.

“KU has lecture hall facilities that, with proper spacing, could allow an in-person lecture of up to 207 individuals,” she said in an email. “It was never communicated to deans that lectures of up to 200 participants must be in-person only courses. Deans have been asked to submit by June 24 a plan that considers a variety of factors for each course section they offer in the fall.”

Graham also said she and other faculty members didn’t think KU had appropriately communicated the risks associated with holding an in-person semester.

“There’s a dip in genuineness about it,” Graham said. “The risk is much higher and greater than we are letting on. And that’s what I mean by being disingenuous … if you really aren’t acknowledging that this is a much greater risk than we realize.”

Several people interviewed by the Journal-World for this story, and many more in the newspaper’s survey, claimed that by insisting on a return to campus, KU was prioritizing profits over public health. Asked to respond to that claim, Barcomb-Peterson highlighted a number of cost-saving measures KU had already announced — leadership pay cuts, a voluntary buyout program for some faculty, and universitywide scaled pay reductions — and said tuition is the best way to remain financially solvent.

“It is our best strategy for financial recovery now: The more students we have in classes — in-person, online or blended — this fall, the less we will need to cut to recover,” she said. “The chancellor and provost reiterated that in (Friday’s) message: The best thing we can do to help KU is to get our students back in classes for the fall semester – whether it’s on-campus, online or hybrid – and ensure that each course serves all students who enroll in it, no matter where they are.”

Varying student concerns

The Journal-World’s survey showed that KU’s graduate students — nearly all of whom serve as instructors for undergraduate students as part of their own studies — are much more concerned about a physical semester than undergraduates.

Nearly all of the graduate students who took the survey said they were worried about teaching in-person, and that the university needed to provide hazard pay for graduate workers — who make an average salary of $17,500 per year.

“I think I need to be paid more to provide the “essential service” of teaching undergrads if they are going to expect me to expose myself to COVID-19 in the classroom,” said Hannah Bailey, a doctoral candidate in the American Studies department. “They also need to pay us more if they expect us to prepare to teach both in-person and online students in the same classes.

“This feels like double the work for the same low compensation. We were already underpaid and now they are asking us to risk our health to teach,” Bailey said. “I also want to know that students feel safe. I don’t know if students have been asked for their say in the matter.”

Many undergraduate students who took the Journal-World survey said they were as comfortable as normal attending in-person classes, and a few said they were more comfortable than normal — though they didn’t address why in the free-response portion.

“I am comfortable with going back to campus no matter what it looks like,” student Kaelyn Mraz said.

Others, though, voiced concerns about their health and the health of others.

“COVID-19 will spread on campus. There’s no getting around it. Every elevator button touched, every door handle to a floor, the tongs in the shared dining hall, the vending machine buttons, the bathrooms — they can’t sanitize it all. They can try,” said a student who identified herself as Angelica.

“How many of us students are uninsured …? I’d wager quite a few. I certainly won’t go to a doctor for feeling ill. Not that I have anything against doctors, but lab tests cost money,” she said. “More money than off brand DayQuil and a coffee.”

Contact Conner Mitchell

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