UCA faculty have raised concerns about the upcoming fall semester in an open letter addressed to President Houston Davis and Provost Patricia Poulter.
“Having closely followed faculty and staff concerns at other Arkansas universities and around the country, we feel it is necessary to now call for most courses to be taught online,” the letter reads.
As of July 8, the letter had 46 signatures from various UCA departments. It urges that the courses are conducted online only rather than in-person or as hybrids.
The open letter describes COVID-19 as an “active shooter we have all been fearing and preparing for.”
A faculty member from the college of arts, humanities and social sciences, who assisted in drafting the letter, explained that their worry was regarding the delivery of the curricula and the lack of diverse voices in making decisions.
“There are a lot of considerations that might be specific to a particular discipline and if there isn't anybody of that discipline on the committee [task force] than that perspective is going to be lost,” the faculty member said.
“Faculty were not being included as a whole in the decision about the delivery of courses for the fall,” the faculty member said. “The decision-making process was dragging on so long and we’re needing to prepare our classes to make them as effective as possible.”
The faculty member said the administration did acknowledge the letter and gave further guidance on the delivery of courses. There are six modes of instruction detailed.
“The first option is traditional face-to-face, the second is split sections...and then there are four hybrid delivery models. They all involve some degree of in classroom instruction and online instruction,” the faculty member said.
The faculty member explained that to teach a course solely online without any face-to-face meetings additional paperwork must be submitted.
On-campus instruction is scheduled to begin on Aug. 20.
A copy of the faculty's letter to President Davis can be found on page two of this article.
July 5, 2020
Dear President Davis and Provost Poulter,
We, the undersigned faculty and staff, are writing to express our view that the university must move to offering most courses online for fall 2020. We have no doubt that the COVID-19 taskforce members have been working in good faith toward effective solutions and with some sense of hope that such solutions will result in a safe environment for all. We have come to the conclusion, however, that your hopes do not align with the realities of the crisis in which we find ourselves. Having closely followed faculty and staff concerns at other Arkansas universities and around the country, we feel it is necessary to now call for most courses to be taught online.
The current plan to return to face to face instruction in the fall raises serious ethical, safety, and pedagogical concerns. We strongly believe that, at the very least, faculty and staff should be able to make our own determination about the best method to safely teach courses and the best strategies to safely complete non-teaching tasks, keeping in mind that these decisions not only affect the UCA community but also our families and the wider community as well. A number of factors have led us to this position, including the following:
There is precedent for moving to mostly online teaching at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus, where faculty in certain colleges have already been given the option to choose their preferred method of instruction. At UALR, the Provost’s Academic Covid-19 Taskforce has recommended that “for the foreseeable future, working remotely should remain the norm, and any on-campus presence must be the exception rather than the other way around” (source). Outside of Arkansas, the Cal State system, consisting of 23 campuses that, like UCA, serve primarily students within their regions, has announced that "[t]here will be limited in-person experiential learning and research occurring on campuses for the fall 2020 term. On some campuses and in some academic disciplines course offerings are likely to be exclusively virtual." (source). And as of July 2nd, the University of Southern California announced that most of its courses would be taught online for the fall semester, reversing its previously announced re-opening decision (source).
While we appreciate the work that the COVID-19 taskforce has put into rearranging the academic calendar and classroom configurations for the fall, these measures fall short of ensuring student and instructor safety, especially given the exponential rise in cases in Arkansas and peak infection predictions from UAMS (source). At least two studies cited in an article from Inside Higher Ed indicate that “safe” classroom capacity that follows the current CDC recommendations for distancing likely falls somewhere in the range of 11-24% of ordinary classroom capacity depending on configuration, a number that is much smaller than what the UCA administration is planning for (Source).
In addition to the institutional precedents and recommendations noted above, faculty from other institutions around the country have articulated our common concerns in their own responses to COVID-19 policies. In its June 25th open letter to the University of Vermont administration and board, the faculty union at UVM compellingly argued that “An instructive way to think about face-to-face teaching when UVM and other universities open in the fall is as an experiment, a research experiment with human subjects….” (source). The letter goes on to note the university’s Institutional Review Board would never approve such a research experiment, asserting that “As potential subjects of this experiment, we as faculty of UVM do not think that UVM can assure the university community or the local or regional community a safe and healthy environment. Therefore, unless individuals decide otherwise, we do not intend to consent to be subjects in this experiment and teach students face-to-face until there is a proven vaccine or our safety is truly assured.” At UCA, we face the very same conditions. And, while we are sure that the COVID-19 taskforce has considered ethical concerns, we can only assume a combination of institutional and government pressures has pushed you in the direction of “hoping for the best” when the worst is clearly already here.
Viewed from another angle, COVID-19 is the active shooter we have all been fearing and preparing for: It is a known killer, it sneaks onto campus secretly, and it opens fire without warning. Must we sacrifice someone’s child or spouse or parent to this “shooter” before we act in our own defense? If that happens, who would be held responsible? The Board? The university president? The faculty and staff who did not put up a fight to keep the community safe? Eventually, this particular killer will lose, although possibly engendering significantly more disability and death than an actual active shooter. Given these stakes, we should no more return to mostly in-person teaching in the fall than we should ask students to ignore an actual shooter on our campus.
According to OSHA guidelines, workers have the right to “Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.” OSHA also protects workers from retaliation for exercising this and other rights (source). Compelling faculty, staff, and students to return to working conditions that increasingly put their lives at risk (as does a “return to campus” requirement in the midst of the current case trajectory) potentially violates the Occupational Safety and Health Act and opens the university to whistleblower complaints and crippling litigation.
The pandemic disproportionately impacts women and LGBTQ people, who are far more likely to be primary caretakers for elders, spouses, children, and others in our families and communities, and for whom the stakes and stresses of face-to-face instruction are higher (source). Experts have made it clear that adults in need of caretakers, particularly the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with underlying health conditions, are at significantly higher risk of death should they contract COVID-19. Requiring faculty and staff in these and other vulnerable categories to document their reasons for working remotely under the conditions of the current case trajectory is intrusive at best and illegal at worst.
Whether community spread increases or drops depends largely on the decisions we make in the next few weeks. During the academic year, the UCA campus becomes one of the densest population zones in the county. Even under the circumstances of a typical flu season, we have little control over the spread of illness in our compact community. Given the even greater likelihood of community spread and severe illness or death from COVID-19, our institutional responsibility for minimizing community spread is clear. Moving most course offerings to online only will go a long way toward controlling community spread.
The risks to our lowest paid faculty and staff, particularly adjuncts and part-time staff who are less likely to have adequate insurance, are vastly increased if most classes are taught in person in the fall. The policy places a potentially disastrous health and financial burden on our most vulnerable workers.
Aside from the safety, ethical, and legal issues noted above, there are clear pedagogical issues raised by distancing in the classroom that are generally resolvable through online teaching. The use of PPE and the implementation of physical distancing negates most of the benefits of in-person teaching and raises issues for students with disabilities. Among other obstacles, distancing in the classroom makes the communication necessary for effective in-person group and partner work almost impossible. Students required to follow safety protocols (e.g. mask wearing in class) would learn more effectively and equitably in an asynchronous online classroom. Additionally, we have been told to prepare live streaming options to accommodate students who may fall ill or have to quarantine during the semester. Simulations of live streaming classes have revealed serious obstacles to meeting learning outcomes (source)
In addition to the active learning issues noted above, will students with hearing challenges or those learning new languages be able to understand or imitate their instructors when they can’t see their mouths? Will faculty with hearing challenges be able to effectively field questions? Again, these obstacles to learning under pandemic conditions, are much more easily resolvable through online teaching.
Students and faculty have a right to know how courses will be taught before the semester begins. Preparing a full semester of courses that provides a combination of synchronous, in-person instruction, asynchronous or synchronous video lectures, as well as accommodations for the many students who either cannot attend in person or cannot connect online is simply not sustainable or efficient over the course of a semester or a full academic year. If everyone knows the rules of the game up front, we can expect to play it well. If the rules change mid-semester, we can expect the quality of teaching and learning to drop accordingly.
Taken together, the above concerns leave us with only one option: Join the colleges and universities around the country that have opted to offer most courses online, leaving face-to-face teaching as the exception rather than the rule. By adopting this policy for the fall 2020 semester, UCA will exercise leadership both statewide and nationally.
In conclusion, we write this letter out of a shared sense of love for our students and for UCA, as well as a shared commitment to deliver a quality education in the coming academic year. We also understand the gargantuan decisions that lie ahead, but those decisions must be made by all of us. Indeed, we would not speak unless compelled to do so.