University of South Carolina Announces Plan to Restart In-Person Classes the Fall


Yesterday, my school, the University of South Carolina, announced it is planning to restart in-person teaching this fall. This seems like a good move.

The main reason is that planning now to restart in the fall gives the university greater flexibility when it will need it. We don’t quite know how the pandemic will look in three months. If it turns out closer to then that it doesn’t seem wise to resume in-person teaching and other campus operations, the university can always delay their implementation. But if it turns out that it makes sense then, on balance, to do so, the university will be better prepared.

The plan is still in development. You can read the announcement about it from University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen here. Importantly, it stresses that faculty, staff, and students who do not feel comfortable returning to campus in the fall need not do so then:

While we would like as many students, faculty and staff members as possible to return in person, doing so would not be mandatory, as we recognize that some would be uncomfortable coming back to campus in August. We respect each person’s decision to either return or delay their return, and we will expand our online course offerings to accommodate those who choose to remain away.

The return to campus will be “phased in” in stages. Other elements of the plan include:

  • We will have the capacity to test every Student, Faculty and Staff member for COVID-19 upon return the campus
  • We have the capacity to sustain a robust testing program throughout the entire semester
  • We are reviewing several comprehensive tracing and tracking apps for early and thorough identification of at-risk contacts
  • We have designated ample student housing for those who may require isolation and quarantine, and we are putting in place the support services to provide for their meals, education, and other needs
  • We will increase on campus single-occupancy rooms in on-campus residence halls
  • We will modify our dining practices in order to reduce close student contact in student dining facilities through “grab and go” meals
  • We will make accommodations for high-risk individuals and others who choose to continue online instruction with safeguards for protection against discrimination and stigma
  • We will follow clear public health protocols, including social distancing within classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms and sports venues, with strong encouragement of proper social distancing off campus
  • We will ensure that large class sections will either meet in smaller sections or in online formats and create alternative academic offerings to accommodate safe class gatherings
  • We will provide advising over the summer to help all students adjust their course schedules as needed
  • And finally, as stated, no student, faculty or staff member will be required to return

At this stage, many of the details as to how these elements of the plan will be realized are missing. But they at least point to having an understanding of what’s needed to return to campus responsibly.

You can view a searchable list of universities’ plans for the fall in light of the pandemic here.

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Jon Light
Jon Light
1 year ago

Does that mean individual faculty members can request online teaching assignments (i.e. if they don’t feel comfortable in-person teaching)? If not, seems like they actually are forced to return. If so, isn’t it possible there’s “too much” online teaching or nobody wants to teach in person, and so on?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jon Light
1 year ago

Texas A&M is currently planning for a specific target of 25% of classes face-to-face. (I don’t know if this means 25% of sections, or 25% of student credit hours – this likely makes a big difference, because only sections of under 25 or so students will meet face-to-face, while sections of Chem 101 (that my partner teaches) often have 300 or 600 students.) Departments are being asked to submit planned lists in the next week or so, and if not enough instructors want to offer face-to-face classes, they may have to change their plans. I’ve been conducting a survey of our graduate students to see whether they would prefer graduate classes to be online or face-to-face, and I’ve been finding a broader mix of preferences than I expected.Report

Julia
Julia
1 year ago

Does this mean that even instructors teaching an in-person class must make it possible for some students (i.e., those who can’t attend in person) to participate in that class remotely? That would make things quite difficult for instructors and students alike, it seems. But if this is not the case, I worry that students who don’t attend in person won’t be able to fulfill all their course requirements. (For very popular courses, such as calculus, the university might offer both in-person and online sections. But that won’t work for courses where only one section can be offered.)Report

Randolph Clarke
Randolph Clarke
1 year ago

I’m surprised that your administration says that they “will have the capacity to test every Student, Faculty and Staff member for COVID-19 upon return [to] the campus.” Does anyone here know whether that is a reasonable expectation?

Florida State has announced its plan that fall classes will be online, with exceptions only where there is a pedagogical justification, such as there might be for a lab course. Students will be on campus, in dorms, but for the most part not in classrooms.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Randolph Clarke
1 year ago

For what it’s worth, Dr. Fauci said that he expects the phrase, “if you want to take a test, you can take it” to be true by the beginning of June. I can imagine muck-ups pushing that date farther off, but it seems unlikely that it will still be false by September, given that Fauci said this publicly. (See https://www.axios.com/fauci-coronavirus-testing-june-c1a79bbf-f41a-4d32-b63d-0bf3143cacf3.html)Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Randolph Clarke
1 year ago

I’m a bit surprised. Correct me if I’m wrong, but FSU is part of the State University System of Florida (SUS), like my institution (New College), and I’ve heard that the BOG would be making the call for all SUS campuses. Last I heard, we have not received instructions from the BOG, nor have we settled on a plan, so I wonder what the FSU plan really means.Report

FSU Grad Student
FSU Grad Student
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

The emails that I’ve seen announcing FSU’s plans say that the BoG has already said classes must be offered in person “in some form” for the Fall semester. I imagine the thought is to implement the letter of that (very foolish) instruction while actually adhering to reasonable safety measures as much as possible.Report

Randolph Clarke
Randolph Clarke
Reply to  FSU Grad Student
1 year ago

Very sorry, I was mistaken in my report. We’re directed to plan to deliver (nearly all) fall courses online. But it does not seem that a final decision has been made.Report

Randolph Clarke
Randolph Clarke
1 year ago

Robert, the claim that I see at the link you provided is that everyone who needs a test will be able to get one. It is noted that Fauci “clarified that not everyone who ‘wants’ a test necessarily ‘needs’ one.”Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Randolph Clarke
1 year ago

Ha! I didn’t read that. Of course. I should have guessed.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Robert Gressis
1 year ago

In case it wasn’t clear, I should have guessed given the government we have.Report

Lisa S
Lisa S
1 year ago

The level of surveillance being proposed through tracing and tracking apps, as well as with mandatory testing, in order to facilitate in-person instruction is somewhat astonishing, especially at a public institution. Is any one batting an eye at the degree to which civil liberties are being encroached? I certainly hope so.Report

Wildcat
Wildcat
Reply to  Lisa S
1 year ago

Two very unrelated comments.

First, on contact tracing apps in general. The predominant model for contact-tracing apps being developed for the US is highly decentralized. The model that Google and Apple are developing stores the record of what phones you have been near on your own phone, encrypts it strongly, and doesn’t report that record to any authority or to Google/Apple. It does not gather, store, or send any information on where your phone has been to anyone. Nor does it synthesize any location information your phone might be gathering for other reasons with the contact record. The Bluetooth identifiers that our phones will use to ‘know’ what other phones have been near them aren’t connected to any other identifying information. And as a base feature of Bluetooth, they change about every 10 minutes anyway, so it’s not possible to figure out what phones your phone has been near without access to your phone. Your phone does all the work of sending notifications to all the identifiers it’s been near. On a visible level, nobody getting a notification knows who it relates to; on a technical level, no entities except your phone and the phone companies sending the message know who it’s sending a notification too. All of this is quite different from the models behind early contact-tracing apps; one of the reasons it’s taken so long to create and roll one out in the US is that a privacy-preserving informational model needed to be developed.

Second, on on-campus surveillance. Here I’m in total agreement with you. That shit is terrifying. Unfortunately, a lot of it was already here before COVID. (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/12/24/colleges-are-turning-students-phones-into-surveillance-machines-tracking-locations-hundreds-thousands/ for additional info.) My university appears to have installed one of these tracking systems without bothering to notify *anyone* about the decision. I can’t find anywhere in any of the incoming student information where they’re told they’ll be subject to this kind of monitoring, let alone given a chance to consent or opt out. But I think a lot of people are seizing on COVID as a chance to draw a line in the sand. We’re already well past any reasonable line. If we restrict messaging about privacy to making sure COVID responses are reasonable, we’re going to miss a lot of things that are a lot worse.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
1 year ago

“This seems like a good move. … The main reason is that planning now to restart in the fall gives the university greater flexibility when it will need it. ”

This sounds an awful lot like a rationalization. If one of the likely outcomes is that classes will need to be online for all or most of fall semester, then all this advanced preparation for in person classes will waste a lot of valuable time and resources that could be used to prepare to make those online classes the best they can be. If it is safe (for some students and faculty) to open up in person, then they can live on campus and enjoy campus life doing online classes or online-first hybrid classes with some added or modified in person meetings.

The only compelling reason I’ve seen for preparing for in person classes is one related to the university bottom line: students are less likely to commit to attending residential colleges if their classes are going to be online and they won’t be able to enjoy the benefits (educational and otherwise) of campus life. So the longer we can pretend that we will/might be holding in person classes, the more students we can get to commit before pulling the rug out from under them when it turns out to be unsafe to remain open for (some? all?) of fall semester.

Please help me out if I’m wrong. I also want to be employed in the fall, and as a contingent faculty member I’ll be the first to go if enrollments drop. But what is the significant benefit *for students* that makes it so imperative that we go to such extraordinary means to ensure (the mere possibility of?) in-person instruction in the Fall?Report

ABC
ABC
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

As somebody who was a victim of child abuse, I can tell you that child abuse doesn’t end when someone turns 18. For countless students, in-person classes and open campuses keep them safe. The pedagogical benefit is that don’t have to do homework while parents hurl insults at them or throwing them across the room. They get a constant reminder that a world outside of their home exists. This doesn’t work on screen. Online people seem far away and the ideas distant. In person, students can physically interact with people who won’t harm them. They can learn to trust new voices and come to campus leaders when they have problems. They can learn to challenge the thinking that they are worthless. They can go back to a safe dorm instead of a dangerous home.

I’m not saying that there is an easy solution to any of this. But please keep in mind that real people are at risk for far more than a missing paycheck no matter what we do.Report

Jim
Jim
1 year ago

I did not see anything about tuition reduction for classes that are offered only online As a parent, I don’t consider online instruction as having the same value as in-person classes. I only hope that faculty will see a salary reduction if they elect to stay away without a documented underlying risk factor making that necessary. If everyone else in society can go back to work why can’t university faculty do the same?Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jim
1 year ago

Jim, we’re with you and your child, although I guess most of are hoping we won’t see salary cuts if we *have to* teach online. I’d be surprised if we were the ones to make the call unless we have a legitimate reason to do so. More importantly, I’d bet many if not most of my colleagues would rather teach in person if they could. We’re not the ones pushing for online instruction, believe me, it’s not making our lives easier.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Jim,
A few points: 1. Do you have any actual evidence that online classes are any less effective than are in person ones? If you have that evidence then please do share and cite. Or do you just have a feeling? As I say to my students, in both online and in person classes, you can’t make grand claims like this based on what you feel. You need to cite some actual evidence. 2. Speaking of evidence, the emerging consensus seems to be that COVID spreads through sustained contact in small spaces with bad ventilation. (See here https://www.erinbromage.com/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them) That pretty much describes most college classrooms. Moreover, even a college professor teaching only three smallish classes of 25 each would have sustained contact with 75 people. That’s a lot more than most office workers. Further, most classes last 50-75 minutes. That means both students and professors in a class have more sustained contact than even grocery store employees, who have a lot of contact but little sustained contact. 3. To put it bluntly, college professors skew old. At 41 I’m probably the youngest person on my particular campus. And of course advanced age is one of the biggest risk factors for COVID complications or fatality. On the basis of your feeling you demand we demonstrate a documented risk factor before we risk our lives or have our pay docked? Well try being over 65. That alone would give a lot of professors a reason to stay away.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 year ago

And one more thing: Only a very small percentage of tuition goes to pay professors salaries. That’s true even of decently paid full time faculty like myself. It’s even more true of adjuncts who are probably earning something like $75-150 per student in each 3 credit hour class for no health insurance or retirement benefits. Should we cut the already pitiful salaries of adjuncts if they want to teach online? Tuition prices are a scandal yes. But faculty aren’t the villains here.Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Jim
1 year ago

On an optimistic reading, Covid-19 kills people at 10x the rate of the flu. It can cause serious and lasting kidney, cardio, neurological and respiratory damage. The NYT and WaPo are full of stories of people who suffer debilitating pain and disability for months afterward. There is no effective treatment and no vaccine.

With all due respect, you should worry about putting your child in a petri dish rather than trying to punish faculty who plausibly and rationally worry about their health, and about whether university promises about sanitation, testing, air circulation (this is a serious issue) and so on are realistic.Report

Duh
Duh
1 year ago

Way to maintain profits, universities.
USA! USA!Report

Nathan Ross
Nathan Ross
1 year ago

Most universities seem to be making this decision based on the following priorities:
1) What is good for admissions/retention (how can we get students to keep paying full price)
2) Public health (a distant second)
3) Pedagogy and what makes sense from an instruction point of view is taken as the least important factor (i.e. well planned online learning would probably be better than an emergency shift to remote learning).Report