The Faculty
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The Faculty

Colleges Must Not Compel People to Teach In Person During this Pandemic

Russell Powell and Daniel Star
We are two ethics professors at Boston University. Our petition has so far garnered over 1,500 signatures from BU teachers, students, and supporters.

Most colleges in the United States are set to open in the Fall, despite the ongoing ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming shadow of a second wave in states where infections had been on the wane. The pandemic is worse now than it was when colleges went completely remote part way through last semester. Colleges vary when it comes to their plans for the Fall. One policy being implemented in some colleges, including our own, requires that all teachers hold their courses in physical classrooms, with some limited exceptions made for very senior teachers, for individuals with certain underlying comorbidities, and for people whose health conditions are otherwise covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. At some institutions, such as BU, human resources departments are being tasked with evaluating employee exemption requests, making life or death decisions with no training in medicine or ethics, based on criteria that have been deliberately developed without any meaningful input from teachers. Requiring that we teach in person, even with a process for providing limited exceptions, constitutes an unconscionable breach of colleges’ moral duties to their teaching communities. Instead, colleges should grant every teacher the option of teaching remotely during the pandemic, without requiring that they disclose private medical or family details. This is what a number of colleges, such as MIT, the University of Chicago, and Duke University, are doing.

The only way to open colleges in a safe manner, absent a vaccine, is to have robust testing, contact-tracing, supportive quarantine, social distancing protocols, and personal protective equipment (PPE) in place by the time the fall semester begins, and all protocols complied with thereafter. To say that this is a tall order is an understatement. Despite good-faith efforts to reshape parts of many campuses, if all or most courses are taught in person, many students, teachers, and staff compelled to come to campus will get infected, some will be irreparably harmed, and some will die. What could justify this outcome?

Defending the urgent need to bring students back to campus, colleges have stressed the value of in-person teaching. It is far from obvious that lecturing in PPE gear would be optimal for anyone — as opposed to teaching mask-free, and students attending mask-free, from the safety of a room at home. In any case, it is morally inconceivable that colleges would sacrifice the health of their teachers and their families at the altar of preferable pedagogy.

The only plausible justification for requiring in-person teaching during this once-in-a-century pandemic is that many students will choose not to enroll if some classes move online, resulting in such economic devastation that teachers and staff will have to be furloughed or laid off. We are highly skeptical that successful colleges are confronted with such forced choices. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon college administrations to make the economic case in detail, and transparently, so that their stakeholders can meaningfully evaluate the evidence and reasoning they are relying on. It is also incumbent upon them to show us that they have taken the long term interests of the college into account. Any college that is insisting teachers return to the classroom is likely overlooking the huge cost to the college and its long term standing if there is a large outbreak of COVID-19 on campus during the Fall because of that policy choice. If colleges want to ask (let alone demand) that teachers take the kinds of risks that college leaders are contemplating, would-be martyrs have a right to know what their health sacrifices have bought.

Crucially, colleges should not take student preferences for how campus life should be conducted in the Fall as a fixed point. Many prospective and current students who are eager to return to normal campus life have yet to think through the moral and practical ramifications of attending class in person (such as that teachers will need to lecture wearing masks). Students should be treated respectfully as compassionate people who are receptive to reasons, rather than as self-centered consumers.

Colleges rightfully pride themselves on providing far more than an arms-length corporate environment, or a hub for the mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services. Rather, institutions of higher learning are held together by the special obligations of care that teachers, students, administration, and staff have to one another. What sort of message are we sending to students if we encourage them to return to campus knowing they are likely to infect vulnerable populations? We are telling them that they should not care (or not care very much) about taking risks that might seriously harm or kill other people. We are saying that teachers must serve students at any cost, rather than work with them to assist them in becoming responsible citizens. Failing to respect the interests and dignity of teachers at such a pivotal moment will only serve to tear these communities apart. Instead of putting teachers in danger, colleges should make the moral case to students and their parents that each of us in our college communities has obligations to keep one another safe and to support the institution and mission we have chosen to be a part of.

One might object that if other essential employees are forced to work on campus under unsafe conditions, then teachers should do so as well. Isn’t our position elitist and selfish? In response, we would point out that it serves no good end (certainly not the end of establishing a more just society) to prevent those who can work remotely from doing so simply because some other people cannot. All employees that can do their work at home ought to be allowed to do their work at home. Moreover, moving a large fraction of classes online will result in lower population densities on campus; this, in turn, will reduce the risk for on-campus employees, many of whom belong to racial and socioeconomic groups that are already bearing the brunt of this pandemic. Rather than say that if some must suffer then all must suffer, we should seek safer conditions and hazard pay for employees who continue to work on campus under pandemic conditions.

Teachers are the life blood of our colleges. College leaders are ordering them into the trenches for fear of short-term tuition losses, deciding who will remain on the life boat and who will get tossed overboard. If colleges continue down this path, then like the well-meaning but misguided mayor of Amity Island in the film Jaws, they will have blood on their hands.

To read more about developments in higher education at BU and elsewhere, visit Daniel Star’s blog, With All Due Caution.



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