On June 14, Penn State announced that students will return to in-person instruction in the fall — as a result, university faculty and staff will make a return as well.
While many students are excited to see their peers again and return to “normal” classes, others, including faculty members, have concerns about a second wave of the coronavirus.
Sarah Townsend, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, said the announcement was met with mixed reactions from Penn State faculty and staff.
“Some faculty feel [reopening is] absolutely insane, and that this will create an enormous health risk,” Townsend said. “Other faculty feel that there is a huge health risk, but it's kind of a necessity, that the university won’t function otherwise.”
Carina Curto, a professor of mathematics, said it worries her to imagine sports being played in Beaver Stadium with a large number of people densely packed together.
“I think the idea of having games in that stadium is crazy, because with COVID the number one thing is to avoid large crowds,” Curto said. “Even if they make it one sixth of the people [typically allowed in the stadium], you’re going to bring in 20,000 people. That’s crazy.”
Townsend said she believes if student-athletes have the right to choose whether or not to return to campus, faculty members should as well.
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A letter to Penn State President Eric Barron and Penn State’s administration addressing faculty concerns gained traction on social media following the decision, with over 1,000 signatures from university professors. Since the administration has not released specific details or additional information regarding how certain classes will operate, the letter asks for faculty to have more of a say in how the semester will go.
A main concern among some faculty members is job safety for their nontenured colleagues, who are potentially risking both their health and jobs to teach in the fall.
“Over one half of the faculty at Penn State are not tenured-track faculty. That means they are on contracts [and] can be fired at any time,” Townsend said. “So you have all these people who are expected to put in extra labor to figure out how to deal with this situation, and they're being asked to put their health at risk, yet they can be fired at any time.”
The decision by Penn State’s administration to return to campus is also seen as a financial one to some.
“On one hand, [university] administration is not trying to lay people off, so I’m not completely upset about returning to campus,” Curto said. “It is an effort to maintain financial stability.”
The virtual town hall for faculty and staff hosted by the university leaders on June 22 did little to reassure faculty members, according to Curto, since it offered no new information aside from layoffs at the Nittany Lion Inn.
“I think there are still a lot of concerns about how this is actually going to work and possible layoffs,” Curto said. “I was somewhat reassured from the town hall… but not firing people right now is not the same as guaranteeing that their job will be safe.”
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While faculty and staff agree that in-person learning will benefit students more, some also feel the health risks posed by the virus may not be worth it.
But a return to campus won’t just affect University Park — each of Penn State’s commonwealth campuses will face its own difficulties while planning for a fall return as well. Penn State Abington is near one of the hardest-hit locations in the state — Philadelphia.
Liliana Naydan, an associate professor of English at Penn State Abington, said one of the campus’s main challenges will be making sure both faculty and students are safe.
“I think this is a peculiar problem of our condition as one university [that is] geographically dispersed… we have many students who come from multigenerational homes," Naydan said. "Many students take public transportation to get to our college. We have old buildings and many small spaces and narrow hallways, and I think that confluence of things creates real challenges for us in coming back face-to-face.”
Despite the challenges, however, Naydan said she believes Abington faculty are still committed to providing students with good learning experiences, whether in-person or online.
Faculty members also expressed concern for the low number of task force members and little-to-no consultation with staff.
“When President Barron sent out the [reopening] message, it included the link to all the task group members,” Townsend said. “But if you go through the list, only between fifteen and twenty are faculty members, and those faculty members are almost all administrators also.”
Along with a lack of faculty representation on task forces, there is also uncertainty as to how much freedom faculty members will have in crafting a response to the virus.
“Each individual faculty member should be able to decide how to teach their class, whether remotely, in-person or through some kind of hybrid mix,” Townsend said. “The faculty member is the one best positioned to decide what is necessary to protect their own health, the health of their students and also what makes the most sense pedagogically.”
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But even a hybrid teaching system, which involves students rotating through in-person and online instruction, would create complications inside the classroom. Townsend said learning a foreign language is hard enough, and wearing a mask would make it even more challenging.
There are also concerns for faculty members who are immunocompromised, are over the age of 60 or have pre-existing health conditions.
“I do have some health concerns, an underlying condition that is probably not the greatest risk factor of the conditions that [health officials] have identified,” Townsend said. “But I do have an autoimmune condition that potentially puts me at greater risk.”
All in all, university staff felt the vague and flexible guidelines put out by Penn State’s administration have left more questions than answers.
“The administration held a couple town halls and sent emails, but it's not enough to give us vague emails,” Townsend said. “Faculty, and staff, and students — everyone needs to be involved in making decisions.”
A meeting with faculty from all of Penn State’s campuses was held on June 23 to discuss the decision and collect feedback. Curto said informal polls taken throughout the meeting showed that most faculty members did not want to return to in-person instruction.
“As a whole, there's a lot of people upset that this decision was made without faculty consultation,” Curto said. “But that decision seems to have been made and doesn't seem [likely] to be reversed.”