Amid changing conditions, instructors brace for in-person classes

Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 3:00pm

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Design by Cara Jhang

Faculty members are preparing for a fall semester at the University of Michigan like no other.

For the majority of faculty members, this semester will require teaching over Zoom or preparing materials to upload to Canvas if their courses are taught entirely asynchronously. But others will teach face-to-face in socially distanced classrooms.

Instructors across the University’s different schools and departments are still set to teach in person, despite some faculty pushback against the University’s reopening plans. Professor Kentaro Toyama organized a protest outside of the Fleming Administrative Building after an open letter requesting greater transparency from the University went unanswered.

“I think, as instructors, what we would really like to see is the administration recognizing that we’re doing the hard work on the front lines and listening to our concerns,” Toyama said.

Toyama is teaching a 500-level course in the School of Information in the fall, which will have the option of in-person discussions and office hours for students who wish to meet face to face. Despite electing to make his course hybrid, Toyama said he does not believe the University will make it through the semester without having to go fully online.

“I don’t believe we should be having an in-person, in-residence semester,” Toyama said. “But if we’re going to do it, I think we need to do it as safely as possible. We probably need to test more often, we need to make sure that everyone’s wearing masks and socially distancing and so forth.”

In June, University President Mark Schlissel announced the in-residence semester, with on-campus housing opening and a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote classes being offered. This plan is still in place, with residents moving in this week and classes starting Monday.

Around 31 percent of undergraduate classes are set to be taught in an in-person or hybrid format. The School of Public Health and LSA are among those with the lowest percentages of in-person instruction, while the School of Nursing has some of the highest rates.

In an interview with The Daily on Wednesday, Schlissel said going fully online would not make much of a difference, given the large percentage of classes already taught remotely, but he is hopeful the few classes that require students to be on campus remain in person.

“Going fully remote is a pretty incremental difference from where we are right now,” Schlissel said. “It wouldn’t have left people at home. We’d still have lots of students in Ann Arbor, and we’d still have the challenge of working with students to help everybody understand what it takes to be safe from being infected and from transmitting the disease.”

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union representing graduate student instructors on campus, has started impact bargaining ahead of the fall semester, calling for a guarantee of their members’ right to a safe workplace amid the pandemic. The Lecturers’ Employee Organization, a union representing non-tenure-track faculty, has said the union expects the health and safety clause in their contract will ensure their members do not have to work in conditions deemed unsafe.

Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Sylvie Tran worried that the University’s decision to keep some courses in-person is setting unrealistic expectations for incoming students, as well as posing a danger to the city’s residents.

“Still holding some classes in person, to me, kind of signals that ... the University is inviting people back to campus with the promise of some kind of campus life,” Tran said. “It’s encouraging tens of thousands of students to come back to campus and socialize and that’s going to really have an effect on the Ann Arbor area for the permanent residents there.”

Tran said seeing the fate of schools that moved fully online also influenced her outlook on the semester. Michigan State University announced last week that undergraduates courses would be entirely remote for the upcoming semester. The University of Notre Dame moved classes completely online for at least two weeks after the number of positive coronavirus cases began rising due to off-campus gatherings.

Music, Theatre & Dance GSI Imani Ma’at AnkhmenRa Amen is set to teach a section of an introductory dance course titled “Healing Dance and Drum Circle” in a hybrid setting. 

Amen said she plans to meet with students and discuss an option with which they are all comfortable. She expects to be able to maintain her in-person course throughout the semester, she said.

“I don’t have any concerns with my course being held in person because of the material I’m teaching,” Amen said. “I’m interested to really use this teaching opportunity to come up with new blueprints of how teachers can collectively engage in a holistic way with their students, and how that shifts the dynamics of things, and taking us out of this fear element of ‘Wow, we don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

She said her outlook on the semester was not changed by schools having to go back on their reopening plans. But still, Amen noted the uncertainty that comes with in-person instruction during a pandemic.

Engineering lecturer Kenneth First said his family experienced a “wake-up call” to how contagious COVID-19 is when his daughter had mild symptoms and contracted it a few months ago. 

“I think it’s a little bit different when you know someone who’s been through it and you see how easily it can be contracted,” First said.

Despite this, First, who is teaching the course Process Safety Risk Management, said he didn’t have many concerns with his class being held in person this semester. He said parties that don’t follow health and safety guidelines trouble him but noted the semester could go as planned if people follow rules.

“I think that following the appropriate protocol of social distancing and wearing masks, you can certainly do this safely, so I don’t really have concerns,” First said.

Other instructors are planning for a potential pivot to a completely remote semester.

LSA professor Faith Sparr, who is teaching two hybrid Communication and Media courses, sent a survey out to students asking what they are most comfortable with. According to the survey, about a third of each of her 25-person classes said they intend to attend in person. Another third said they would be attending remotely. The rest said they were not sure yet.

Sparr said she attended a virtual town hall hosted by University President Mark Schlissel and had mixed feelings about his comments. She felt particularly concerned about his remarks regarding testing.

“He was fairly dismissive of the need to test and also fairly dismissive of the ability to test widely and robustly at a University this large,” Sparr said. “I was surprised to hear him talk about it in that way.”

She is willing to adjust her class to fully remote, she said, based on the health situation on campus and whether or not the hybrid setup is effective for her classroom.

Some faculty members have gone a step further and are already changing course for the start of their classes — even though the school year has not yet begun.

LSA professor John Kingston, who is teaching two anthropology courses in a hybrid format said he made the decision to have an in-person element to his classes when he thought the situation would be better by the fall. 

He’s reached out to his students telling them the first two weeks of class will be online, and then they will “collectively assess the risks or situation.”

“I was thinking optimistically that things would be better than they are,” Kingston said. “I’m also thinking in terms of what I would like to do and what would be best for the students and what would be good for the University and weigh that against the personal risks.”

Daily Staff Reporter Iulia Dobrin can be reached at idobrin@umich.edu