COVID-19 Through the Eyes of College Professors

By Emily Kim

With August fast approaching, colleges and universities are scrambling to finalize plans for the start of the school year. So far, much of the focus has been on the students—students have expressed concern over the value of online learning, protested the still-high tuition costs, and questioned the sense of community that so many institutions promise to preserve, socially-distanced style or over Zoom. But what do the professors think about the upcoming fall? What are their thoughts on online learning or potentially returning to the classroom? Responses from various professors are detailed below. 

First and foremost, like their students, most professors recognize the challenges that come with online learning. Joshua Wede, psychology professor at Penn State University, typically walks all around his classroom while he teaches. But with online learning, “the value that you have in the classroom is totally lost.”

However, colleges cannot ignore the fact that a handful of their tenured professors may be older, and therefore at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, 37% of tenure-track professors are age 55 or older, and are twice as likely to continue working past age 65. Online learning may have proved itself to be much less effective than in-person classes, but for older faculty, it may be the safest option. 

Younger faculty, though not at as much risk as others, also have worries of their own when it comes to potentially returning to campus. Some have underlying health conditions, and others with young children or older, immunocompromised relatives. 

It’s safe to say that Terrance Petersen, assistant professor of history at Florida International University is not alone in his sentiment that “[professors are] all holding [their] breath to see what the policies will be.” And professors have a reason to be anxious. Not only do they have mixed feelings on returning to campus or teaching online, but it seems as if schools have an “every man for himself” mentality—different schools are doing different things. And more alarmingly, some schools are making it difficult for professors to avoid returning to campus in the fall. 

Anna Curtis, associate professor of criminology at Penn State University, requested to work remotely in order to take care of her young son, in the event that he started to show symptoms of COVID-19. However, the HR department denied her request, citing the American with Disabilities Act to state that this was not a valid reason to work from home. 

Georgia Tech also announced that only faculty age 65 or older, or those with certain health conditions (a list of seven conditions, including diabetes and chronic lung disease), would qualify to teach remotely. This put 35 year-old first-year writing instructor Alexandra Edwards in a frustrating position. She did not meet the age requirement, and while she has a disability, it wasn’t one of the seven on the list. She feels unsafe returning to campus, but worries that she will not qualify to work from home. 

These anecdotes and responses demonstrate that while the quality of education is important, people should not have to compromise their health and mental wellbeing. Professors’ safety concerns are valid concerns, which is why it is all the more important to provide a campus environment where professors, as well as students and campus staff, can feel at ease. How do we do that? A rapid, accurate testing plan can surely help. 

Therefore, as the fall approaches, colleges should heed the concerns of their faculty and do all that they can to alleviate their anxiety. If colleges are planning to reopen their campuses to students and staff, they must be clear in detailing tangible ways, such as widespread testing, to ensure people’s safety. Professors are integral to school communities, and so, while maintaining a high quality of education is important, faculty safety should be of utmost priority. With a comprehensive, easy-to-use testing plan, colleges can achieve both.

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