David Chatfield feels he transitioned from an unstable career in graphic design to what is becoming an even more unpredictable one in academia.
The 42-year-old teaches art history as an adjunct professor at two community colleges in Aurora and Fort Lupton, Colorado. He loves teaching, even when last semester the COVID-19 pandemic doubled his workload by forcing him to teach his seven classes online and figure out how to record and upload his lectures to YouTube.
Now he feels a different pressure — the prospect of returning to the classroom this fall. He doesn’t know how the schools will protect him from the coronavirus and help him if he gets sick. Chatfield is uninsured. His earnings of about $28,000 a year make it difficult to afford a plan on his own, he said.
“If I do get infected, what are my options?” he said. “Do I cancel class? Do I get a sub? Do I get health insurance?”
Colleges rely heavily on adjunct professors like Chatfield. And, if these schools move forward with in-person instruction for the coming semester, adjuncts will likely play a greater role in teaching students in the classroom. But they often have little institutional support — in terms of health insurance or other benefits — even during this public health crisis.
The pandemic’s dangers for faculty and students abound. Enclosed spaces like dormitories and classrooms provide a prime environment for the virus to spread, and the number of cases among young adults is rising around the country.
Some colleges and universities are allowing faculty members to request accommodations if they feel uncomfortable returning to the classroom. But adjunct professors — cognizant of the poor job market and sometimes working on semester-to-semester contracts — say they hesitate to make that request because they are nervous about losing employment.
These non-tenured faculty are “in the most precarious situation,” said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.
Take Robin Gary, 56, who, until recently, was an adjunct professor at Elon University in North Carolina. In June, she moved away from her family in Raleigh to be closer to campus. Not long afterward, she received a message from the university with the subject line “Faculty Leaving Elon.” Her name was on the list of people whose contracts had not been continued.
“I’m in shock and I’m in mourning,” she said.