A small group of Millersville University faculty has requested to be exempt from teaching or meeting face-to-face this fall, expressing concern over the health risks associated with the coronavirus.
A trio of communication studies faculty said in a letter to university administration that while they would “love to be face-to-face again with students,” the unknowns surrounding the virus and its long-term effects have compelled them to opt out of in-person instruction.
“Yes, social distancing, masks and other safety measures can help to mitigate and lower (the) risk of viral spread but only one thing is absolutely for certain: it cannot be transmitted through online instruction,” the letter states.
The letter comes as universities across the nation weigh the benefits of in-person learning with the potential dangers of bringing students and employees back to campus during a pandemic.
Millersville, like Franklin & Marshall and Elizabethtown colleges, plans to reopen in the fall under a hybrid model after shifting to online instruction in mid-March for the remainder of the spring semester as well as the summer session.
According to university Provost Vilas Prabhu, at least 51% of courses are scheduled to be online or remote, but plans for the fall are still in the works.
The decision over which courses are online, Prabhu said, was based on the nature of courses and the students who will most benefit from in-person experiences, such as students in labs, clinical and field placements, and student teaching assignments.
New incoming and transfer students also benefit most from an on-campus environment, he said.
Prabhu said in an email that “our overarching principle is to minimize and manage health and safety risks to our students, faculty and staff, by minimizing population density” and implementing recommended health and safety measures.
Millersville professors were asked whether they would prefer to teach online or in-person; however, they were told they should be ready to shift completely online if a spike in cases were to occur on campus.
Greg Seigworth, a communication and theater professor and one of the faculty who signed the letter, said he understands the financial pressures the university is under, but he was “very concerned” about the potential implications of reopening too early.
It especially has the potential to harm minorities, those with disabilities and others who are vulnerable to the virus, he said.
Seigworth said the university should have given faculty an option to “opt-in” to in-person classes rather than “opt-out,” particularly part-time and younger faculty who might feel uncomfortable speaking up.
Millersville, he said, should take care of those “who have the least amount of power within the system.”
There are faculty who disagree with Seigworth and his colleagues, such as Tom Bell, professor of applied engineering.
There are issues to iron out, such as social distancing and cleaning labs between classes, but students, particularly those in hands-on programs, need to be back in class, Bell said. Disciplines like applied engineering don’t lend themselves to distant learning, he said.
“Our students are paying for a residential experience,” he said. “That’s where the real education takes place.”