The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
After the University of Michigan announced an in-residence fall semester, many questions arose about the safety of community members, specifically older faculty members, who fall in the CDC increased risk category for COVID-19.
The University has announced measures to protect the well-being of faculty members including allowing all instructors aged 65 or older or those with a condition causing increased risk for COVID-19 to teach remotely. Faculty requests to teach in-person or remotely will be based on self-identification rather than medical documentation.
Chemistry professor Brian P. Coppola told The Daily in an email he falls in at least one of the CDC risk groups and does not feel safe to teach in-person classes in the fall. Coppola wrote an article titled “A Cruise Ship is safer than a Campus” where he explains how a densely-packed campus is a harbor for the coronavirus to spread despite social distancing measures.
“Every day we have all the proof we need that people gathering together and sharing air is a problem,” Coppola wrote in the email. “It’s a problem in those large public gatherings we see on beaches and in convention centers, and it’s a problem with birthday parties, weddings, and other activities where people from various locales come together and there is some unknowingly infected person who takes down the entire group.”
Introductory biology professor Marcus Ammerlaan teaches Biology 173 and said it was difficult to teach a large lab class online in the Winter semester after in-person classes were canceled. Ammerlaan noted he will have to consult with all his Graduate Student Instructors before making a well-informed decision about whether to request to teach in-person.
“The instructor, obviously, is going to be older than most of the students and that in itself is a risk factor,” Ammerlaan said. “So you don't want to see an instructor getting affected by an asymptomatic student and then pass that infection on through GSIs and to other sections.”
Ammerlaan said each department gets to decide whether a class will be taught in-person or remotely. He said these decisions are changing rapidly, especially since ICE’s recent announcement restricting international student visas if they do not attend an in-person class.
“Bio 172, the bigger class, we were going to do it all online,” Ammerlaan said. “But after (the announcement) that made us really rethink … maybe we should make sure that there’s an in-person component to our class just so that all of our students are secure (on) being here.”
Sociology professor Elizabeth Armstrong wrote a Twitter thread explaining how greek life culture will contribute to increased spread of the virus since the University can only recommend safety guidelines to fraternities and sororities, not enforce them.
“Student housing is densely embedded in the community so younger people will be interacting with older people, so it’s important for the University to consider the effects on the entire community, including staff members in residence and dining halls,” Armstrong said.
According to Armstrong, the University is accommodating faculty to teach in whatever modality they like since there is not enough space on campus to teach face-to-face while social distancing.
“My sense is that the majority of instructors will opt for online,” Armstrong said.
Rackham student Andrea Valedón-Trapote, a history department GSI, said she spent hours researching online teaching methods in March to reduce her students’ stress. She said that since faculty members are more at risk, it might be the GSIs who do most of the in-person labor.
“I think (if that is the case), the University should properly compensate graduate students for risking their own health,” Valedón-Trapote said.
In addition, Coppola said the desire to have the virus “go away” and return to in-person instruction should not come in the way of making a rational, health-informed decision.
“I’d love to be teaching in person,” Coppola wrote in an email. “I’ve been an active critic of online instruction for years. I still believe in (and use) chalk and slate, when I am able. But my desire to do this … to be with students in class … is completely irrelevant and should not be (considered) in the equation.”
Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org