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'Neither safe nor resilient': OU faculty voice concerns over push to retain maximum in-person classes for fall semester

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Empty campus in front of the Oklahoma Memorial Union on the first day of online classes after Spring Break on March 23.

Last year, OU's Norman campus hosted 32,652 students, faculty and staff.

This year, amid COVID-19, faculty said they are concerned the university isn't doing enough to protect the OU community or to better what could be an inevitable switch to online classes.

The initial elements of the plan include moving classes with over 40 students online, adding additional smaller sections, adjusting the class schedule to include 30 minute periods between classes instead of the usual 10 minutes and utilizing larger classrooms with limited capacity.

So how does this new plan affect faculty members?

In a June 8 email sent to all Norman campus faculty members, Senior Vice President and Provost Kyle Harper said the university will try to be “as flexible as possible" with accommodating faculty. In the email, Harper detailed the process of Phase II of the plan, including how to request to teach online rather than in-person, saying that the ability to move to online teaching is only legally available through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The definitions of federally qualifying accommodation under the ADA are clearly and sometimes narrowly defined,” Harper said in the email. “For instance, caring for an elderly or immunocompromised relative, or childcare responsibilities, will not entitle a faculty member for such a legal accommodation but ... may qualify the faculty member for leave.”

Harper said any faculty members wishing to transition to online teaching should notify their department chair or director and try to work out a solution. It is possible they will be asked to teach a different course that has already been designated to move to online. 

Faculty and staff will also be required to wear face masks and practice social distancing while on campus, according to a Q&A session with OU Human Resources. 

Harper said that the main goal is to add more in-person classes rather than online classes.

“I want to be candid that our strong preference is for in-person sections to remain in-person if possible,” Harper said in the email.

Several faculty members have been vocal on Twitter about their concerns since the email was sent.  

One of those faculty members is James Zeigler, an associate professor of English. 

Zeigler said he appreciates that planning for the fall has put the university in a tough position. 

“But the effort to maximize the number of courses that can be offered in-person while trying to minimize risk just strikes me as moving in the wrong direction, as opposed to trying to minimize amount of in-person instruction and maximize the online teaching in order to protect people most comprehensively,” Zeigler said. “The more online, the more flexibility is afforded to families who suddenly find their children at home because schools have closed.”

Zeigler also said he wishes he had a better explanation for the university’s stance on not adding more online classes. 

“What it amounts to for faculty is spending the summer planning two classes, or maybe three — one online, one hybrid remote class — you have to be ready to teach in all three of those modes,” Zeigler said. “It's actually tripled the class (preparation) in a way, if we were committed already to teaching almost exclusively online, except for those classes that absolutely cannot be taught except in-person, then we would be all working more efficiently, especially those of us (with) ... home pressures that are outside of the job.”

Zeigler said these policies will make it challenging for faculty members with children or others in their care. Zeigler and his wife both work for the university and have two young children at home. With their closest relatives able to provide childcare over 2,000 miles away, it is difficult to be flexible. 

“That … requires creativity in ordinary times, but in a moment of global pandemic emergency, it means that no one else can care for our kids but us,” Zeigler said. 

Robert Lemon, an associate professor of German, is also concerned about the university’s approach for the fall semester. 

“The administration cannot claim to be employing a flexible approach to the pandemic if it is only supporting the mode of teaching that is the most dangerous in terms of transmission and has already imposed a pre-emptive ban on increasing the number of online courses,” Lemon said in an email to The Daily.

Lemon said some classes, like his German classes, will be difficult to teach while practicing social distancing and wearing face masks.

“I feel strongly that we need to re-examine the presumption that in-person classes are always preferable to courses taught online,” Lemon said in the email.

Lemon said he is unable to take leave and does not wish to disrupt the leave of his colleagues or disrupt the education of his students as he is teaching a German Capstone course, required by some of his students to graduate.

Lemon and his wife Ellen Bannister, academic programs coordinator of the Center for Learning and Leadership at the OU Health Sciences Center, have two sons with developmental disabilities whose pre-existing conditions make them more at risk for COVID-19. 

“I have ... been placed in the invidious position of choosing between disrupting my students' progress to their degrees and my colleagues’ careers, or putting the health of my family at risk by teaching on campus when rates of infection are increasing.”

Lemon said he understands the disadvantages of teaching online and the financial burden placed on the university. 

“However, these problems pale into insignificance when compared to the very real possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak occurring on campus,” Lemon said. “Given the current surge in cases, the plan as it has been laid out so far seems neither safe nor resilient. I strongly suspect that if we begin classes on campus in the fall, we will not end them there.”

news reporter

Jordan Hayden is a journalism junior serving as a news reporter and copy editor at The Daily. Previously she served as the fall 2018 and spring 2019 assistant engagement editor.

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