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Penn State Faculty Criticize Administration, Raise Concerns About In-Person Classes

Old Main, the administration building, on Penn State's University Park campus
Min Xian


As Penn State gets ready to return to on-campus classes this fall, many faculty don’t think in-person teaching will be safe and are calling on the university for more information about how its plans will work.


By midday Wednesday, nearly 900 faculty and 350 graduate students and others had signed a petition to the university administration criticizing it for a lack of input from faculty, staff and graduate students.


“In my ideal, pre-COVID world, I would much rather teach face-to-face," said Esther Prins, a professor of education at Penn State. “Given the current circumstances, I don’t see any way to do that safely, even with a small class.”


Prins said teaching in person is more dynamic and means interacting with students. But even with precautions like face masks, the idea of bringing tens of thousands of students back to Penn State’s campuses seems like a huge risk to her. 


She is one of the professors who drafted the letter to the university administration. Among other things, they’re calling for letting faculty decide whether classes should be taught in-person or online; and they want job security for staff and non-tenured faculty.


Leland Glenna, a professor of rural sociology and science, technology and society, said he'd rather get back to the classroom, but he’s concerned.


“The reality is if people are going to be coming back here from all over the country, the world, it’s hard to imagine we won’t have people coming back with COVID infections, and I’m not yet convinced that the testing and tracing plan is adequate," Glenna said.


The university has said it will have a program in place for testing people who are symptomatic and those who’ve been in contact with them. But, Glenna would like to see widespread testing. He noted that at some universities, football players who weren’t symptomatic were found to have COVID-19, and were isolated.


“I think we need something similar for all the students, faculty and staff if we’re going to do this thing right," he said.


And, Glenna wants more details about Penn State’s plans. He thinks if the semester has to be kept online to keep people safer, that’s what should happen.

“If there is a plan in place that can make it safe to teach in person, I would be delighted, because I would prefer to do that," he said.


Penn State says classes of more than 250 students will be moved online. A spokesman said in an email classrooms are being studied to accommodate social distancing. And, he said, "Individuals who feel that they are part of a vulnerable population and are unable to perform their assigned duties should work with their unit executives or supervisors, as described in a forthcoming Return to Work Adjustments process, to determine whether adjustments can be made to their regular duties."


So far, the university's response has not satisified everyone's concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading, especially in confined spaces.


“Even if you practice social distancing indoors, even if you’re six feet away, the fact that you’re breathing in circulated air is a risk," said Michelle Rodino-Colocino, an associate professor of media studies.


She said she loves face-to-face teaching and meeting with students.


“And making it feel like a small campus experience. That’s one of our mottos, even in the Bellisario College of Comm, where I teach. It’s 'big campus, small campus experience,'" she said. "But, given the fact that that small campus experience has deadly risk associated with it — no, I do not want to teach in person in a classroom.”

As president of the American Association of University Professors at Penn State, Rodino-Colocino’s position is that faculty have the right to decide whether to teach online or in person.


And, she and others point to risks beyond the classroom. Students live in close quarters. And go to restaurants and bars. Rodino-Colocino said she saw young people lined up outside a downtown restaurant-bar the day it reopened.

“If you’re going to be drinking beer, you’ve gotta take your mask off to drink," she said. "You’ve got to take your mask off even if you’re just drinking water and eating, which I assume people are going to be doing. So, it’s going to be hard.”

Like many universities, Penn State will end in-person classes with the Thanksgiving break. That could help miss a second wave of COVID-19 and avoid having students travel then return to campus. According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, so far 65% of colleges and universities being tracked are planning for in-person classes in the fall.


Penn State says there will be plans for classes to move online, if needed. And, a spokesman said a number of factors could lead to changes, including an increase in coronavirus cases. But, the university did not say what number of cases would trigger that switch.


“I think it’s a petri dish," said Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature.


“I think you’re going to have so many people in enclosed spaces for hours at a time, day after day after day," he said. "As a country, we haven’t come up with anything even remotely like a reliable testing and contact tracing system. Penn State, I’m sure, will do what it can, but I think we’re in very dangerous waters.”


Bérubé thinks individual faculty and departments should be the ones making the decisions about classes. For some, like those in the arts or who work in labs or with animals, there is no substitute. But others could teach online.

“I certainly hope deans and department heads all make the same acknowledgement that faculty have this right to basically not jeopardize their lives for the sake of in-person instruction," he said.


Organizers of the petition said so far the university administration has not addressed their concerns.


WPSU intern Andrew Destin contributed to this report.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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