Concerns rise amongst faculty with re-opening plans as they weigh the health risks with in-person teaching.

Hannah Rosenburg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Concerns rise amongst faculty with re-opening plans as they weigh the health risks with in-person teaching.

July 6, 2020

As Campus Reopens, Professors Worry About Complications at Every Level

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During the next two months — typically reserved for summer research — faculty will instead work on completely rethinking and transforming their fall classes with all the considerations of the University’s reopening plan.

As professors look forward to the fall, they will have to make personal decisions about how to teach their classes, weighing the potential health risks. They will try to draw on what they learned during the unexpectedly online spring semester, but are still facing a fall filled with unknowns and logistical questions.

“[There are] basic tensions between one’s own personal health, the personal health of their family and the obligation of the clear devotion to the University, trying to deliver the best possible educational product,” said Dean of Faculty Charlie Van Loan.

Trying to find solutions to brand new questions with no clear answers was critical for the reopening committees, who worked from March until June searching for solutions before submitting their final reports to the Board of Trustees. The balance between ensuring health and safety, while maximizing educational quality was at the forefront of the committees’ discussion.

Ultimately, President Martha E. Pollack’s fall semester announcement maintained that faculty would have the option to choose for themselves what form their classes would take — either hybrid instruction or entirely online.

For Prof. Courtney Roby, classics — who will be teaching online due to a health condition — that decision aspect was crucial, and not one taken for granted. She served as the Faculty Senate representative on the Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching, and worried for her safety as she watched her colleagues at other universities be forced into in-person teaching.

“It’s very important that faculty and students alike, as much as we would rather be in person, that any of us who don’t feel safe — whether we’re faculty, grad student instructors or students — that nobody is being forced back into the classroom,” Roby said. “It is crucial that we were given that decision from Cornell.”

This choice is important for faculty safety especially, considering the higher risk of severe illness for older adults. Nearly a third of Cornell’s faculty are over the age of 60, according to Van Loan.

Further, a University survey of its faculty found that about one-third were “not interested in teaching classes in person,” one-third were “open to doing it if conditions were deemed to be safe” and about one-third were “willing and anxious to teach in person,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff.

After Cornell announced it will reopen campus to all students in the fall, faculty members expressed wariness over the numerous complications with holding in-person instruction.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

After Cornell announced it will reopen campus to all students in the fall, faculty members expressed wariness over the numerous complications with holding in-person instruction.

 

The University plans to release information about which classes will function under which modality on the course roster, so students can make informed decisions, but it is still figuring out that information, according to Van Loan.

But that personal choice between online and hybrid is only one issue.

“There’s all this stuff we didn’t anticipate until we started thinking in detail about what it will actually look like for us in the classroom [this fall],” Roby said.

These pressing questions span every aspect of education: how to physically fit students in classrooms safely, how to accommodate students who rely on lip-reading when everyone’s wearing masks and how to manage time differences with international students in synchronous virtual sessions.

And each type of class, from seminars to lectures to labs, poses its own unique set of challenges when adapting to hybrid or online instruction.

Thinking about a class she’s set to teach this spring, Roby was already trying to brainstorm solutions: “We do tons of hands-on activities where we use [physical materials], and I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to mail students an envelope of this stuff?’”

Prof. Neema Kudva, city and regional planning, will have to span the globe to reach her students. She teaches a core class for graduate students in her department, half of whom come from outside the U.S.

“How we engage with them will be a challenge, how we bring the experiential aspect of learning into the classroom,” she said about the class, CRP 5190: Urban Theory, which will be taught online. “A lot of my students are coming back to school after having spent some years away, it’s always a challenge to have them [feel like they] belong to the larger Cornell community.”

The class, Kudva said, will require a lot of thinking and reimagining to navigate the difficult topics of race, gender and other social identities — which teaching online will only make harder.

“There are a lot of things we have to pay attention to to make sure we live up to all our expectations,” she said.

An empty lecture hall in Goldwin Smith Hall. Droves of students left campus once President Martha E. Pollack in-person classes during the spring semester.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

An empty lecture hall in Goldwin Smith Hall. Droves of students left campus once President Martha E. Pollack in-person classes during the spring semester.

As dean of faculty, Van Loan has been focused on trying to “inspire [faculty] to do the right things.” One of his main concerns is attendance policies: If attendance is a factor of the grade, students will be more likely to come to class, even if they aren’t feeling well. This poses a greater public health threat than usual, but is one that faculty can exert some control over.

The teaching reactivation committee recommended in its final report that professors should not factor attendance into a final grade, but should still take it for contact tracing purposes.

Kudva, who is the associate dean of faculty and served on the Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching, was especially focused on the quality of education students will receive and how they can get equitable access to it. She was hopeful that the necessary quick adaptations and innovations from the spring semester would be helpful in guiding the fall semester, even if it didn’t provide all the answers.

One of the hardest challenges in the spring was the sweeping breaches of academic integrity — a huge concern that lingers for the fall. Some professors were “devastated,” with numbers as high as half the class engaging in some form of cheating, Kudva said.

“In the spring, there were a huge number of academic integrity violations, like orders of magnitude more than we usually have,” Roby said. “But I honestly think that breakdown in sense of community was at the heart of what went wrong in the spring.”

Ultimately, the faculty are thinking critically about meeting students’ needs and creating supportive learning environments — and how that is changing drastically.

“It’s not just the information delivery, but it’s also that sense of community that we build in the classroom,” Roby said. “It’s going to be so important going forward, both for those of us who are able to return to campus and for those of us who aren’t, maintaining that sense of connection to one another.”