With Students Back on Campus, Faculty Push Back Against COVID Policies They Consider InadequateBreaking News
tags: public health, academic labor, colleges and universities, COVID-19, Faculty
In between teaching two of her classes, Lisa Steichmann got an ultrasound to check whether cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. After losing four organs to the disease in the past decade, she was relieved by the results. But it was only the first of a series of high-stakes tests on her mind: She scheduled 12 coronavirus tests, one each week this semester. Despite her requests and a doctor’s note warning of the specific danger the disease poses for her, she had not gotten permission to teach fully remotely when classes started this fall, she said.
“Everything in me says you’re heading into danger, like a first responder heading into fire,” Steichmann said. She saw students crowding the halls. She knew more than one of the students in her classrooms had already tested positive by mid-September. But she’s 65 years old and needs the health insurance and the retirement benefits she’s accruing at the University of Michigan, she said.
“I really hope I don’t cry in front of my students,” Steichmann said. “I can’t tell them I’m terrified.”
As students have poured back into classrooms, dorms and football stadiums across the country amid the pandemic, some faculty members have felt a mounting sense of alarm.
Spring was marked by optimism: With vaccinations widespread and cases decreasing, many people were eager for a return to normal campus life. Then the delta variant came roaring in. And despite increased precautions at many campuses in the summer before students returned, the reality on the ground has hit some faculty members hard as they face crowded rooms full of unmasked students, or see the numbers of cases spiking.
“The pressure was building all summer long,” said Irene Mulvey, a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University in Connecticut who is president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and concern is widespread. Faculty in many places have been pushing for more protections for weeks or months. “Now that people are back in the classroom, they’re worried about their safety, they’re worried about bringing the virus home,” to children too young to get vaccinated or to immunocompromised family members. “People are really frightened now that we’re back on campus.”
Faculty members have signed petitions, passed resolutions, written open letters calling for more precautions and more options.
Some have protested. There were rallies and marches at multiple campuses last week within the University System of Georgia, and others are planned at campuses in Kentucky, South Carolina and Texas, according to the AAUP. At the University of Oklahoma on Tuesday, faculty members rallied with signs calling on the school to do more to protect them.
Some have defied university rules, requiring masks or switching their classes to online. Some have launched job searches, with an eye toward places with more safety measures. And some people have resigned.
Not everyone is worried. Some professors have pushed back against mask and vaccine requirements, arguing that individuals should be free to decide. Some faculty members are satisfied with their school’s coronavirus protocols, or dismissive of the risks. Many are enjoying seeing students back on campus. But for others those scenes are fraught.
“It’s like watching puppies play when you’ve been walking through a cemetery for two years,” Steichmann said. She loves her students. “I desperately want to be around them. But I can’t risk my life.”
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