GRAND FORKS — With the semester less than a month away, University of North Dakota faculty are busy with their typical class preparations, with an added caveat: What will the coronavirus mean for their classrooms and how will they be protected this fall?
Liz Legerski, incoming chairwoman of the University Senate, applauded the UND leadership team for its response to the pandemic thus far and noted how hard people have been working to ensure the campus is as safe as possible this fall.
But even with precautions in place, there are unknowns for faculty.
“We don't really know what things will be like in the fall,” Legerski said.
The university is asking faculty to be flexible, with which Legerski says she agrees, but, at the same time, that adds to the prep work. Faculty members are juggling planning for in-person classes, while also trying to figure out how asynchronous and synchronous work folds in. Plans may have to shift mid-semester, too, she said.
“That's just kind of anxiety provoking, I think, for a lot of people,” Legerski said.
Faculty members will have Plexiglas around their typical lecture area and will be asked to wear face coverings during classes. Stickers will mark where students can sit physically distanced, as well as a box marking where professors should stand.
Legerski said some faculty members are also worried about the number of potential new COVID-19 cases Grand Forks and North Dakota could see once students begin arriving next month.
As of Wednesday, July 29, North Dakota has 1,038 active COVID-19 cases. In Grand Forks County, there are 74 active cases.
“We know that students' socialization behaviors and such make it more likely for COVID to likely spread,” she said. “I think there are some reasonable fears and concerns about what will happen in the fall.”
Another complicating factor for faculty members are the unknowns about what the school year will look like for K-12 education, Legerski said. On top of thinking about their own classes and their own work, Legerski said parents also have to think about whether their children will be home and for how long.
“So that, I think, adds to the anxiety about the fall and what that fall will be like,” she said.
Options for faculty and staff
Dexter Perkins, a UND professor who has been with the university for nearly 40 years, said, even with all the precautions in place, the thought of teaching in a classroom doesn’t sit well with him.
“I can't in good conscience go sit in a closed space with a bunch of students,” he said. “It's just the wrong thing to do.”
The university hasn’t conducted a campus-wide survey of faculty or staff related to COVID-19 concerns or preparations. Legerski said department chairs have been asked to meet with faculty and staff individually to assess their concerns and make individual accommodations when requested.
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, the union that represents many higher-ed employees, said, thus far, the university has been addressing concerns brought up by faculty and staff as far as he’s aware. He said faculty and staff at UND have been a part of the discussion as campus leaders prepare for the semester.
UND President Andrew Armacost said any faculty member who does not feel comfortable teaching face-to-face classes this year does not have to do so. There will be no penalties for faculty who opt out of in-person teaching, he said. That option also would apply to staff.
If a faculty member gets sick, Armacost said the individual would go into isolation and then, depending on their symptoms and their desires, could teach remotely or have an adjunct professor step in. Armacost said the university will be hiring more adjunct professors to backfill for faculty members.
Faculty and staff would isolate at home, along with any of their close contacts who would be considered in quarantine.
But Legerski said there still could be more planning surrounding what happens if a faculty member gets sick, though faculty have been asked to think about that.
Even in areas where the university doesn’t have direct answers at this time, Archuleta said the university has been building a “framework” for those issues to discuss scenarios.
“We're very happy that the faculty and staff at the University of North Dakota are being consulted, and their issues are being taken seriously,” he said.
Perkins recently wrote an op-ed in the Grand Forks Herald, wondering why UND was having in-person classes at all when the risk can't be mitigated entirely.
“Even if people wear masks and behave in the most responsible way possible, I think being realistic we all know the disease is going to spread,” Perkins said. “It can't be avoided.”
But he said the problem is bigger than just an individual faculty member or student getting sick. It’s also about what it means for the campus community and Grand Forks as a whole.
“I just don't understand why anybody would do this because we know how to teach online classes. We can do it; we're good at it,” Perkins said. “They're not the same as face-to-face, and some people would say they're not as good as face-to-face classes but we can do a good job anyway.”
There are “strong beliefs” by many students and faculty members that the on-campus experience is of “high value” for a person’s education, according to Armacost, who said he also recognizes that there are some students and faculty who “feel completely comfortable in the online setting.”
Perkins wants to teach his larger classes over Zoom this semester then figure out a safe way to teach his smaller classes, whether that’s in a large classroom with physical distancing or some other way.
As Legerski prepares for the upcoming semester, she’s thinking about how students will be rotated into the classroom and what’s the best way to incorporate students who are attending class remotely into the discussion.