In a world toppled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Emerson administration gave students a choice: return to an altered campus and participate in a mix of in-person and online classes or opt to go fully online. (Another handful, alternatively, chose to take a leave of absence altogether.)
Sadly, professors and staff have not been afforded the same luxury.
Emerson crafted the “One Emerson Flex Learning” program based on a May student survey in which college officials say most students asked to return to campus. But during a virtual faculty assembly meeting on June 16 and many times since, multiple professors have said their voices were left out of the conversations about a reopening plan that will drag them back into a world swirling with risk.
“We have not been communicated to as our own constituency, and it does not feel like we… matter in this decision,” Faculty Assembly Secretary Nancy Allen said in the meeting.
Now hundreds of faculty and staff members are mandated to return and interact with students who will inevitably ignore safety guidelines to varying degrees. These professors, some being immunocompromised or elderly, must adapt to the reality of holding classes as the pandemic rages on—all while steering clear of an illness that often plagues its victims without symptoms.
And staffers working in sanitation or the dining hall, for example, are presented with even more dangers than faculty. Unlike professors, however, they cannot do their jobs remotely and must determine if they are willing to deal with danger every day before exposing themselves to potentially infected people and surfaces. Despite this, they have little to no opportunity to provide input on reopening procedures.
From a logistical perspective, bringing back faculty and staff is a requirement to uphold Emerson’s educational quality and prevent the college from falling into the deep end of its steep projected losses, totaling up to $76 million. And the need to restore some semblance of a normal Emerson semester is not lost on any of our community members. Of course, students need to learn; of course, the college needs to survive. But at what cost?
At this point, these professors and staff members have their livelihoods on the line, but also their lives themselves.
The fact that Massachusetts is reopening restaurants, stores, and museums does not mean it is suddenly safe to open up schools and workplaces. There have been more than 8,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the state to date, and that number is projected to reach 9,328 by Sept. 1, according to healthdata.org.
A June survey conducted by the Emerson chapter of the American Association of Union Professors found about 80 percent of faculty respondents want full autonomy over fall courses. Many now dipping into their older years or living with pre-existing conditions want to swiftly and easily have the choice to teach remotely. The earlier they know they can, the more time they can spend tweaking their courses to accommodate the online class experience and fit the needs of students dispersed around the globe.
Instead, the college automatically assumes professors will teach courses in a dizzying new format that combines live instruction with a weekly online component.
Professors now may apply to teach remotely through a workplace arrangement via the Human Resources department. But if a faculty member is excused from returning to campus, the fate of their class then hangs in the balance. As it stands, professors approved for remote instruction may not even end up teaching their own courses, as other faculty members willing to teach in-person may replace them.
It seems simple to argue that faculty should be able to individually determine how to run their classes this fall semester—and that students should be accommodating of their choices either way. Really, whatever ends up happening, professors and students must band together and advocate for each other’s safety—and education—as one unit.
In the end, an Emerson community member is an Emerson community member, regardless of how many tuition dollars they contribute.
With just a month left until move-in, the college should quickly send out a new survey to students, faculty, and staff that comprehensively questions the safety of returning to campus. And while Emerson should consider how students and faculty feel about returning, they ultimately need to make the call that will keep the community the safest, which may even mean going fully online.
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