Roughly 65 percent of schools that plan to hold classes in the fall are planning in-person semesters, according to tracking by The Chronicle of Higher Education. While students are keen to be back on campus, making good on the hefty tuition they spend each year, professors have been digging their heels in regarding any return.
The United States has seen a surge of new COVID-19 cases, reporting record numbers over the past week. Many states have either paused or started to reverse their plans for reopening, putting the future of many businesses and institutions at risk, including universities.
The average age of an American college professor is 55, according to the European University Institute. People over the age of 60 are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, meaning a large number of professors feel they would be gambling with their lives if they return.
“Until there’s a vaccine, I’m not setting foot on campus,” Dana Ward, 70, an emeritus professor of political studies at Pitzer College, told the New York Times. “Going into the classroom is like playing Russian roulette.”
A Cornell University survey found that around one-third of its faculty were “not interested in teaching classes in person,” one-third were “open to doing it if conditions were deemed safe,” and the remainder were “willing and anxious to teach in person.”
But faculty in other schools, such as Penn State, the University of Illinois, Notre Dame and the SUNY schools, have signed petitions complaining that they are not being consulted and pushed back into the classroom too soon.
“I shudder at the prospect of teaching in a room filled with asymptomatic superspreaders,” wrote Paul M. Kellermann, 62, an English professor at Penn State, in an essay for Esquire magazine.
At the minimum, many are asking for the choice -- no questions asked -- as to whether they wish to teach remotely or in person.
With classes set to start at some colleges in August, many institutions are cutting it close to make a final decision as to whether they will force students back or not. A number of schools faced difficulties in the transition to remote learning.
The transition was not well received. At Harvard, a student has filed a class-action lawsuit against the university alleging the school provided a “subpar” educational experience via remote learning, according to The Harvard Crimson.
“I hope many students choose to return to campus in the fall, as I believe not only is it better to learn in an environment designed for learning, but I also believe we are getting more for our money’s worth,” Henry Bojanowski, a Boston University student, told BU Today. “Additionally, I think many people would benefit from a more social environment like the BU campus, since the vast majority of us have been socially distancing for quite a while.”
Understandably, schools want to avoid such an experience.
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, arguing that it would be “anti-scientific” and “an unacceptable breach of duty” not to reopen.
“Forty-five thousand young people — the biggest student population we’ve ever had — are telling us they want to be here this fall,” Daniels wrote. “To tell them, ‘Sorry, we are too incompetent or too fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education,’ would be a gross disservice to them and a default of our responsibility.