University faculty in S.D. fear that return to campus may lead to COVID-19 outbreaks (ABRIDGED)


Bart Pfankuch, SUBMITTED, South Dakota News Watch

The plan to return to face-to-face teaching and learning at colleges in South Dakota in August is causing great concern among faculty and staff who fear that campuses across the state could become sources of major outbreaks of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

Though extensive planning and preparation are underway to make campuses as safe as possible amid the pandemic, many college employees are worried that bringing thousands of young adults from across the state, country and world together in campus classrooms, residence halls and administration buildings will lead to COVID-19 outbreaks among the staff, students or their families.

“I really want to see the students again, and I want to see them face to face,” said Tim Schorn, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. “But I’m very concerned that what we’re doing on college campuses is creating the new round of COVID hot spots.”

A petition seeking to give students and faculty the right to decide on their own to teach and learn remotely if they do not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning has been shared among faculty since early July, and has garnered more than 100 signatures. The petition was sent to Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher in mid-July.

Many of the concerns center around the fact that even if protections against the virus are present in classrooms and campus buildings, students will create risks by arriving on campus after spending the summer elsewhere, by living very active and social lifestyles, by gathering in groups and by not taking preventive steps against spreading the virus in their personal time.

Mark Geary, a Dakota State University professor who is president of the statewide faculty union, said that even with mandatory mask usage, social distancing and other protective measures in classrooms and other buildings, he expects to see outbreaks of COVID-19 on campuses in South Dakota this fall.

“My gut feeling is that if they come in and say our campuses are open, you’re going to start having football games and then after-parties and then two weeks after your first home game, you’re likely to see a spike,” he said. “My rough guess is that you’re going to see major outbreaks on some campuses.”

The Board of Regents, which governs the university system, announced on May 1 that all six universities and two special schools in the system would return to in-person teaching for the fall semester. The six universities will begin classes on Aug. 19 and end in-person teaching on Nov. 24, with all finals exams to be administered remotely.

Universities are undergoing significant planning and preparation for the return to classes, including extensive cleaning, installation of protective barriers, providing of sanitizer and protective equipment, and reconfiguring of classrooms to ensure social distancing.

The Regents voted unanimously on Wednesday, July 22, to begin the academic year with a requirement that masks be worn inside all public buildings on campus. The Level 3 designation, the third-most stringent on a scale of 1-4, will be reviewed and could be changed after 30 days. Individual universities can also request a change in level at any time if conditions change on their campus.

Masks will also be required in indoor settings at four private colleges in South Dakota, including Augustana University, Dakota Wesleyan University, Presentation College and the University of Sioux Falls.

A vast majority of South Dakota faculty who responded to a recent survey by the Council for Higher Education, the union that represents South Dakota faculty, do not feel confident that face-to-face teaching can be done safely on South Dakota campuses in the fall.

Only 8.6% of the 81 faculty members who responded to the survey — sent out before the mask mandate — said they were confident of a safe return. Brian Maher, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, said he understands the concerns of those who will soon return to campus.

But after a summer of planning and preparation, Maher said he feels inperson teaching and learning on campuses can be done safely.

“I have my own children of the age where they could be instructors, and I would feel very comfortable with them being in that classroom as an instructor or a student,” Maher said. “Anybody who has watched the deliberate approach the Board of Regents has taken, and anybody who has talked to a campus president about the deliberate, calculated method they have used in terms of coming to where they are today … I think people would find comfort in all of the research, all the data and all the care that has gotten us to where we are today.”

Sara Lampert is a history professor at USD who also serves as coordinator of the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies program. Lampert has deep concerns about returning to in-person classes on campus and authored the petition sent to Maher.

Lampert’s petition made four major requests: that faculty have the ability to teach remotely if they wish; that no student be required to attend in-person classes; that academic advising be allowed to take place remotely; and that no instructor or student be required to disclose personal or family medical information in order to justify a request to teach or learn online. Lampert, who supports the mask mandate, said she understands and is sympathetic to the difficult decisions the Regents and university leaders must make.

“But we want our colleagues to feel safe teaching and feel like they actually have a choice over the environment they’re put into in the fall,” she said. “The people who want to be able to protect themselves, their families and their students, not to mention their communities, by teaching online don’t have a choice in that.”

Maher said it was impractical not to have general protocols in place to guide behavior of individuals, such as whether they teach remotely, in a system with thousands of employees.

Some staff and faculty members have received waivers that will allow them to work from home or teach entirely online and not have to hold in-person classes or advising.

The process to obtain a waiver was shared with faculty across the university system in the summer and was handled by human-resources officials at each campus, said Janelle Toman, spokeswoman for the Regents.

The accommodation decisions were guided by university-system HR policies and procedures within the Americans with Disabilities Act, Toman said.

Faculty and staff at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City were given the opportunity to seek a waiver based on CDC guidelines for conditions that put someone at risk of complications from COVID-19, such as cancer, kidney disease, chronic pulmonary disease, Type 2 diabetes, immunocompromised conditions, sickle-cell disease, heart disease and obesity.

In all, about two dozen faculty and staff members of the roughly 450 people on campus were granted waivers to work remotely, said Charles Michael Ray, a university spokesman. Ray said that other employees are being allowed to work remotely if they obtain supervisor permission. About 10 of 150 faculty members were among those who received formal waivers, he said.

Bringing students back to campus is also important from a financial standpoint.

When South Dakota universities shut down and reverted to online learning last spring, schools lost millions in revenue. USD and SDSU alone lost a combined $9.2 million in reimbursements made to students for housing, fees and parking.

Schorn said it is important for administrators and the public to know that faculty and staff are raising concerns about returning to in-person classroom teaching and pushing for more online options solely due to fears of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.

“We’re not pushing for this to step on people’s toes, to take away their rights or freedoms or to get out of work,” Schorn said.  “We’re not doing it out of selfishness or laziness; we’re doing it out of concern for ourselves, our students and our families.”

David Clay, a soil-science professor at South Dakota State University in Brookings, said he worries that no plans exist to test students or faculty for coronavirus.

“When you look at what the CDC says, it’s testing, testing, testing,” Geary said. “I don’t think we have a lot of plans to adequately or robustly test our students.”

Student athletes are more likely to come from across the nation and the world, including areas that are hot spots for COVID-19, such as Florida, California and Arizona.

Clay said students who congregate on the campus could become infected and then bring the illness home to their families and friends.

“Students come in and let’s say they pick up COVID on campus, where are they from?” Clay said. “They may be from Philip, or from all over the state, and then they go home and can transmit it there, so it’s multiple layers of concern.”