As we move closer to the fall semester, community colleges and universities across the state have either announced their fall plans or are working on them, meaning the question of whether and how higher education institutions should reopen their campuses to live classes and activities is being addressed in a patchwork of ideas and plans. We appreciate that these plans strive to include safety precautions, but recent upswings in COVID-19 cases in states that opened up too soon should encourage us all to reconsider some basic assumptions.
This May, we surveyed AFT Michigan members from across the state to find out how they felt about both the conclusion of the 2019-20 school year and the choices before us this fall. More than 1200 college and university faculty, graduate employees and staff completed the survey, with three broadly consistent themes emerging from their responses:
- Although concerns about the digital divide are very real, they believe that students transitioned relatively smoothly to online courses this spring;
- They are very concerned about the health risks of returning to in-person instruction; and
- They do not think that their institutions will be able to modify classrooms, buildings and activities enough to safely resume in-person instruction this fall.
AFT Michigan stands firm in our position that higher education should be accessible to all who seek it. We also believe that part of a college education comes from the experiences gained through campus life, particularly the way our institutions bring together people from across the world. However, as the pandemic continues to grow across the United States and the globe, we are concerned that opening up campuses to in-person classes and activities, as well as “college life,” will cause community spread of the virus and put students, instructors, staff, and their families and communities at risk. The greatest burden will fall on those who are already more vulnerable, including people of color, those with existing medical conditions, and older staff.
Therefore, we believe that it is in the best interest of students, faculty, staff and our communities for higher education to be conducted online to every extent possible until an effective vaccine can be distributed widely to the general public.
Faculty, staff and students made remarkably effective efforts to transition online this spring, and we believe that, with adequate preparation time and training, educators can develop online courses that will meet learning objectives for the vast majority of our curriculum. While remote learning has undeniable limitations at any level; in general, college students are more capable of learning online than younger students. Colleges and universities will need to ensure that all students have online access and those who need to live on campus do so in the safest possible manner. For that small portion of courses and services that truly require in-person settings, we suggest that institutions put trust in the educators directly responsible for the work to decide how they can be conducted safely. For example, we are committed to working creatively with our institutions to ensure safe course options for international students whose visa status is threatened by the ill-informed guidelines recently issued by ICE.
We support returning to live classes and a vibrant campus community life when we can rest assured that the health of our students, faculty, and staff will not be compromised by COVID-19. Until that point, we encourage all campus communities to prioritize public health and safety by moving online as much as possible.