Faculty weigh in on the decision to return to campus amid the pandemic

“I think it’s going to be a disaster,” Pavel said. “I don’t think the plan was well thought through.” 

By Jamilah Lewis, Staff Reporter

The faculty at SIU are concerned about returning to campus amid the pandemic and SIU’s Faculty Association, and Graduate Assistants United, are calling for remote only learning. 

Recently, Jackson County has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases and it is now considered one of Illinois’ 11 warning counties. 

Gov. JB Pritzker held a press conference at SIU on Aug. 4 where he announced that the spread of COVID-19 is currently worse in Southern Illinois than it is in Chicago. 

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SIU’s Faculty Association, in conjunction with Graduate Assistants United, released a statement on Aug. 3 calling for SIU to commit to remote learning, teaching and working for the fall semester. 

“With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to worsen across the United States, Illinois, southern Illinois, and Jackson County, union leaders believe the time has come to put safety first,” the release said. “Only those courses that absolutely must be offered on-campus should be offered on-campus, they believe.”

The release said students should be encouraged to remain off-campus if they have a safe place where they can effectively continue their studies.

“If we encourage students to congregate in Carbondale, we will not only endanger their health and safety, but that of SIUC instructors and staff and others in the Carbondale area,” Dave Johnson, president of the Faculty Association, said.

The release said both unions have been negotiating with the university to reduce risks in the classroom, but measures put in place to reduce on-campus risk can’t address the issue of off-campus transmission.

“Masks and social distancing on campus are essential,” Johnson said, “but the university can do very little to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 outside of on-campus housing and classrooms.”

The release said the groups believe SIU should offer the safest conditions possible for students who need to return to campus for classes only offered in person or if Carbondale is safer or more practical for them, but many students may be in a safer or more productive learning environment if they do not return to campus. 

“Students and families should make the decisions that are right for them,” Johnson said. “The on-campus experience simply isn’t going resemble what it’s been like in years past, and we shouldn’t be asking students to return to campus just to fill dorms and pay fees.”

The unions said they believe SIU should take the following steps to ensure safety amongst students and teachers: 

1) Offer classes online only unless they can only be offered face-to-face and are required for students to graduate or advance in their programs.

 2) Encourage students to return to Carbondale only if they are taking in-person classes or otherwise need to be in town to safely/effectively continue their studies.

3) Focus on planning/resources on ensuring the safety of students and staff returning to campus.

 4) Provide all off-campus students with reliable internet access.

5) Repurpose fees to provide internet access to those in need and refund other on-campus fees for those who remain off-campus.

 6) Work with unions to advocate for state and federal funding to help make up for economic losses suffered due to the pandemic.

7) Work with unions to advocate with the state and federal governments to get extended unemployment benefits for any workers who are laid off or are unable to work safely on campus.

“We all want to return to the classroom as soon as we can do so safely,” Anna Wilcoxen, president of GAU, said. “But it’s just not safe yet, physically or psychologically, and an unsafe learning environment does not lead to quality education. If we act now to switch to remote learning, we can provide students with a high-quality educational experience while protecting our communities against the deadly threat of COVID-19.”

In an interview with the Daily Egyptian, Johnson said a major concern with holding many classes on campus is a breakout occurring on campus and having to move everything online partially through the semester. 

“I know that if they allow me to teach online I can do it. I’m not going to have to switch halfway through the semester if things shut down,” Johnson said. “And I won’t have to worry about what happens if a couple of my students come down with COVID and have to start teaching them online while I teach everybody else face-to-face.”

Samuel Pavel, an associate professor of aviation and flight, said he is not looking forward to face-to-face classes taking place.

“I think it’s going to be a disaster,” Pavel said. “I don’t think the plan was well thought through.” 

Pavel says only classes that are truly essential should be face-to-face. 

“Those are the ones you absolutely have to have to graduate like labs, aviation, automotive, things like that,” Pavel said.

One of his biggest concerns is the risk of students’ health for them to come back to campus.

“I always say at what cost?” Pavel said. “How many students should be allowed to get sick or god forbid die to give the college experience to most?”

Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs Meera Komarraju has a more positive outlook on coming back to campus.

“The beginning of a semester is like a renewal of energy on our campus,” Komarraju said. “Everyone is looking forward to it. The town and the university.”

With all the protocols in a place like making classes smaller, social distancing, and wearing masks, Komarraju said she feels they’re taking all the possible steps to make sure face-to-face classes are safe.

“We are scanning the environment and keep track of information on a daily basis,” Komarraju said. “Also listening and seeing what others are doing and trying to see what works for us.”

 Komarraju said the administration feels SIU has an advantage because it is located in a rural area, so figuring out what works for the school specifically is something they’re keeping in mind.

With the rise of cases in Jackson county, the Faculty has become increasingly afraid and has since transitioned more classes to remote learning as more instructors wish to teach online.

The American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teacher’s union in the country,  is also trying to push schools to wait to reopen until Covid-19 transmission is below 1 percent and daily testing is below 5 percent. 

The union also wants contact tracing, updated ventilation in the buildings and mask requirements for students and teachers.

Carbondale Elementary School District #95 and Carbondale High school, both plan to begin the fall semester with remote only learning. 

Students will begin returning to campus on Aug. 12, with classes set to begin on Aug. 17. 

The Daily Egyptian’s News Desk can be reached at 1-618-536-3329, by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @dailyegyptian.

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