Safe to return?

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At St. John Fisher College, faculty and students are returning to campus to begin a fall semester.
(Photo by Paul Ericson)

Kristy Liddell will not be teaching at St. John Fisher College for the fall semester. 

An adjunct faculty member in the English Department, Liddell was open to teaching her class remotely—the spring semester, disrupted by the COVID-19 lockdown, unearthed opportunities within Zoom for discussion groups—but her application for accommodation was denied. Liddell does not fall into a high-risk category.

She has been uneasy—with concerns about health safety but also her students’ ability to engage in deep conversations while sitting six feet apart and some attending remotely.

“It’s not that I’m choosing between a really great in-person experience or nothing,” says Liddell, who has taught at Fisher since 2013, with the exception of a two-year hiatus. “This is going to be a catastrophe pedagogically, not just in terms of population health.”

Across Rochester, college faculty and students are returning to campus to begin a fall semester clouded by apprehension as COVID cases are rising in many parts of the country. Some worry about hinging the success of in-person instruction on the behavior of college-age students. Instructors question why administrators are limiting the number of remote courses; to some, the steps taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on campus are inadequate. Others simply feel unheard or are afraid to speak up.

Faculty and staff elsewhere have threatened to sue their employers over safety concerns. University of North Carolina employees this month filed a class-action lawsuit. Three days after returning to campus, employees at City Colleges of Chicago warned of a strike if support staff were not allowed to return to remote work.

The situation is multifaceted with many moving parts. A solution that appeals to parents and students may not sit well with faculty. A model that works for administrators might be opposed by custodial staff. As thousands of students from around the country come to Rochester to pursue their degrees, the unease among students and faculty is evident.

“Everybody has a different risk tolerance and also people are in different situations,” says Kenneth Rhee, dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Nazareth College. “We cannot apply the same rules to everybody. I think we have to be more empathetic and sensitive to where everybody is and be able to work with them to make things work for the person as well as the organization.”

Plans laid out

Universities and colleges that quizzed parents and students earlier this summer about returning to campus found that most students wanted to come back. Task forces were established to figure out the best way to reopen with an eye toward providing a safe campus experience. 

Liz Lawley, professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Games and Media, says expectations were set based on focus groups with students and parents at the beginning of June. (Her son attends RIT and doesn’t plan to return in the fall if he can’t take classes online.)

“Very early in the summer the administration promised students and parents that the majority of the instruction would be in person,” says Lawley, a member of the RIT’s academic senate, who is teaching her classes online with a medical exemption. “And so, for the entire summer they have demanded that the majority of classes be taught in person regardless of whether faculty feel comfortable doing that. The only way not to teach on campus is to get a medical exemption.”

Like RIT, other institutions also conducted focus groups. In its plan, Fisher says its College Relations Planning Team coordinated two student focus groups and three Campus Conversations to provide information, updates, and recommendations with an opportunity for input and questions from students, faculty and staff. 

Ryan Kabel, a junior at Fisher this fall, appreciates his college’s efforts at keeping students informed.

“I feel safe going back knowing our college staff have done everything they can to ensure our safety on campus,” says Kabel, a computer science major who grew up in Batavia. “I trust our admins knowing we share the common interest to get everyone back. Their constant emails with updates and asking for feedback have made me feel very included in the situation. 

Complete plans submitted to the state, with accelerated starts and earlier ends to the semester, were disclosed recently. At RIT, for example, that means students may take classes in person, a blend of in-person and remote options or fully online on an accelerated fall calendar. Classes began yesterday. At Fisher, plans were guided by “maximizing in-person instruction and delivering the Fisher academic experience.” The University of Rochester and Nazareth, like their counterparts, highlight flexibility and a willingness to adapt to change.

“University of Rochester isn’t doing anything creative or out of line or different from what other universities are doing,” says Thomas Slaughter, Arthur R. Miller Professor of History and director of Seward Family Archive Project at UR. “(Even so), I am concerned about it. I am concerned about the students themselves, but I’m also concerned about them spreading it to other people.”

Safety measures

Move-in days at Nazareth, like some of its counterparts, were adjusted to reduce the number of people on campus and in one location at a given time. (Photo by Paul Ericson)

A return to on-campus learning requires adherence to health and safety guidelines established by authorities including the Monroe County Health Department, New York health officials, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These include the use of masks, and protocols for social distancing, monitoring, testing, screening, contact tracing and disease containment. Classrooms have been redesigned to ensure a six-foot distance among students and between them and educators.

At Fisher, for instance, one-way travel patterns and “footprints” have been established in potential high-density locations. RIT will limit the total number of occupants at any given time to no more than 50 percent of capacity for a particular space, its plan states. At UR, classrooms, instructional space and lecture halls including auditoriums will use 40 square feet per masked person for determining occupancy limits. 

When Rhee was on Nazareth’s campus recently, he saw facilities personnel measuring distance between desks.

“We are doing everything that’s possible to ensure the safety of everyone on campus—faculty, staff and students,” he says.

Campuses have introduced mask mandates. RIT is purchasing a supply of face masks and will provide them to students and employees, the university says. Employees will receive masks and a thermometer. The list goes on.

Daily health screeners like UR’s Dr. Chat Bot or Fisher’s Daily Pass and testing requirements—RIT students were required to test themselves two weeks before coming to campus—are in force. Virus shedding will be tracked through wastewater checks. 

That hasn’t eliminated anxiety. When planning at campuses began, the surge in infections around the country was not yet in sight. 

“We did not know there was going to be this dramatic rise in infections by the end of the summer and we had not changed our plans in any meaningful way since then,” Lawley says. 

RIT has tested products to see if they are effective at killing and filtering microbes, including viruses. These include air ionization devices designed to improve air quality, given the aerosol nature of COVID spread. Nazareth is working on ventilation as well, Rhee says.

With these efforts come costs. Wording in a Fisher email about the HVAC systems upped Liddell’s concern.

“They said they were looking at ways to improve the air purification without increasing utility costs,” she says. “For me, I do not care one bit if it increases utility costs. … I feel like that’s a baseline safety measure, especially since the windows don’t open in basically any building.”

In an Instagram post, blackatur—an anonymous safe space for current BIPOC students and alumni at UR to share race-related experiences—sounded an alarm last week.

“Currently the return of students is being handled very poorly. Off-campus students won’t be tested even though they are coming from other cities and interacting with the campus and surrounding community,” the post reads.

UR’s move-in plans ask residential students to arrive on campus one hour prior to their assigned move-in time to be tested for COVID-19. They must quarantine for two weeks if they arrive from one of the states specified by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

Counting on good behavior

Students and faculty—wherever they work or study—are required to go through COVID-19 training for appropriate and safe behavior on campus. Relying on the conduct of college students to mitigate the spread of infection is a scary prospect for some.

“We are depending very heavily on education and behavior modification to ensure that safety measures are maintained, and I don’t think that’s realistic when we’re talking about college students,” Lawley says. “We’ve told college students for a long time that they shouldn’t drink and they shouldn’t do a number of things and we consistently have issues with that. I don’t think we’re going to be successful in preventing them from socializing in ways that could facilitate transmission of infection.”

At UR, classrooms, instructional space and lecture halls including auditoriums will use 40 square feet per masked person for determining occupancy limits. 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College developed a model to determine whether in-person instruction could continue during a pandemic. Simulation results showed that large-scale randomized testing and contact tracing are vital to contain an outbreak. Tests need to be highly specific to keep the size of the quarantine population manageable. They suggest moving largest classes online to control size of an outbreak and the number of quarantined students. 

“It is likely more important to control non-residential social exposure among students,” the paper states. 

RIT’s Lawley points to models such as this one, stressing the need for frequent testing. It also could be useful to track day scholars and faculty and staff who come to campus.

“Even with only a small number of asymptomatic carriers, without very frequent testing the likelihood of infecting the entire campus within the course of a semester is extremely high,” she says. “We’re not doing asymptomatic testing other than very general things like wastewater testing, which is simply not going to allow us to identify people quickly enough.”

At UR, five students have tested positive for COVID-19 and moved into isolation, and contact tracing has begun, officials said. The institution has nasal tested more than 1,500 students as part of its move-in and pre-arrival screening plans. 

At RIT, more than 12,000 COVID test results were submitted by students, the university says. Of those, 60 students, or 0.5 percent, had a positive test. Among employees, RIT has received 2,503 negative test results and three positive tests, or 0.12 percent.

Those students identified as having a positive test were not allowed to circulate on campus until cleared by the Department of Health where the test was administered. Some remain in isolation; others have been cleared and have safely joined RIT, officials say. The university is reporting its current RIT COVID-19 Alert Level is green, meaning that prevalence of coronavirus on campus is low.

To keep its campus safe, RIT says, it is “conducting a rigorous public education campaign, urging everyone to take personal responsibility to control the spread of the virus by washing their hands, wearing a mask and watching their distance, meaning staying a safe distance of at least six feet from others at all times in public spaces.”

A number of campuses around the country have been forced to rethink their plans. At the University of Notre Dame, more than 99.9 percent of students were COVID-free before returning to campus, the university said. Two weeks after students returned, more than 8 percent of 348 tests conducted were positive. The number grew to 147 positive cases—and all but one were students. On Aug. 18, the university suspended in-person classes until Sept. 2.

Some two weeks after undergraduate students moved in, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed its stance from an in-person fall semester to going mostly online. The university reported a spike in COVID-19 cases in the week ended Aug. 16. Currently, 177 students are in isolation and 349 are in quarantine, both on and off campus, officials said on Aug.17.

Barnard College and Columbia University flipped to remote learning for undergraduates last Friday, upsetting some students who were ready to arrive from other states and quarantine for 14 days.

Liddell considers the former Fisher student who lives across the street from her.

“I can tell you if my safety is depending upon their quarantine measures during not now even but the spike of the outbreak, that’s absolutely not going to happen,” she says. “And I like this student, but they were having big parties, big parties, not socially distant at all.”

Placing the success of a semester on the individual responsibility of college students, some of whom are living away from home for the first time, isn’t fair, Liddell adds.

Nazareth’s Rhee believes this is a teaching moment.

“We’re in higher education, we’re here to educate, to teach our young people to practice good, ethical and prudent behaviors and be good social citizens,” he says. “I think in some ways this is a great practice ground for us to teach our students to behave in a way that’s helpful rather than harmful.”

Alyson Witt, a second-year nursing student at Fisher, understands that imperative. She has missed being with friends and is excited to return to campus. Still, while she practices safety measures and is happy with Fisher’s response, Witt doubts that many of her peers will be compliant.

“Although I feel it is nothing but fair to ask us to be responsible and to follow guidelines set in place by the school, I am unsure of how students will react. It is incredibly important not only for our own safety, but just as important to take into consideration those around us—especially those most at risk,” Witt says.

Alyson Witt

“I hope that all students will choose to be responsible,” she adds, “but I also think we have to be realistic in that that is unfortunately not going to be the case. I think we have to keep in mind that, yes, the situation is not ideal, but to go back to normal, we have to follow the steps to do so.”

Witt is a Type 1 diabetic and so already at risk. Her mother is concerned for her daughter’s health and safety and her worries echo Witt’s: behavior of the student body. 

Slaughter, who thrives on being around his students, is troubled that institutions are relying on the buy-in from college-age students.

“When we fly all those students back here in a couple of weeks, we’re making things worse,” he says. “I don’t think anybody would say that’s making anybody safer.”

Slaughter has students in COVID hotspots like Texas, Wisconsin and California. A student in Wisconsin decided to defer her matriculation by a semester, choosing to take classes online from Monroe Community College.

Uncertain future

As of Aug. 10, Slaughter didn’t know how many students he would have in his class. He wasn’t sure if some or all of them would be on campus or if they would choose to study remotely from places like China, a 12-hour time difference.

“It’s very, very hard to plan for all the different variables,” he says. “In the end, I felt like I was preparing for three different contingencies, not knowing which one of them was most plausible. So, I decided to go all online … the (option) safest in planning. I don’t mean safest in health; I mean safest in terms of covering for the different possible combinations of things going on.”

Says Liddell: “I totally understand that everybody wants a normal college experience this semester. I understand that the college sends out surveys and the students and the parents said, ‘This is what we want.’”

However, when she went through the safety and classroom trainings, she wasn’t sure that her course could work that way.

“I can’t get students to have deep conversations in an atmosphere of confidence and trust about things like race and injustice and identity,” Liddell says. “That’s nobody’s fault, but that just can’t happen when people are six feet apart, masked and (debating with) each other, and so I wish the college had also asked professors, ‘What do you feel, given these options, what do you think is the most effective way to do your course?’”

Though Slaughter doesn’t believe UR has intentionally acted against the interests of faculty, he notes the formation of a new chapter of the American Association of University Professors union on campus.

“This has come out of the frustration with the decision-making process, what they feel is the lack of consultation and the fact that the decision making is driven more by financial concerns than by health and safety concerns,” Slaughter says of the union chapter. “I think that (feeling) is rather common. It’s my impression that’s the general view.”

At RIT, Lawley says the provost has held townhall hall meetings as a venue to air concerns. 

“They allow us to bring stuff up, they acknowledge what we’re saying, but we’re not seeing any change in what the approach is,” she says. “For most of the summer we had a hard number that departments were required to adhere to, which was that no more than 20 percent of class sections could be offered online. Most of which got taken up by the people who have accommodations.”

Since then, the university has softened its stance on the number of courses that can be offered online, she notes. 

No guarantees

No institution is able to guarantee a COVID-free environment. RIT states it openly: “We understand that despite RIT’s safety protocols, RIT cannot guarantee a COVID-free environment. We all play a role in keeping our RIT community healthy and safe against the spread of COVID-19.”

“I feel it is impossible for anyone to not have concerns about coming back,” Fisher student Witt says. “This situation is so new to all of us; we are all learning how to get through it. We just have to have faith in the plan and in each other.”

Working together against the spread of the coronavirus is a common refrain, with health, safety and transparency on new COVID-19 cases as top priorities. RIT has a system to alert its community. Nazareth, which has reported one case on Aug. 14, has a webpage that will be updated daily through the week on the number of infections.

“I don’t think we can know right now what’s going to happen over the next six months at the universities,” Slaughter says. “And when you can’t know what’s going to happen, to me the best plan is you go online for one more semester. 

“I think that if I were responsible for the finances of the university, I might see that as more complicated,” he adds. “I think faculty have the benefit both at work and in society to be more theoretical or idealistic about things, but I think people who are having to deal with the very real finance losses—which are considerable right now—have to weigh other factors as well.”

Whether Rochester’s higher education institutions are doing enough to prevent or contain a COVID outbreak on campus remains unknown.

For now, nobody feels safe enough.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. (Disclosure: She has served as an adjunct faculty at St. John Fisher College.) All coronavirus articles are collected here.

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