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How faculty is making 'ASU work' during the fall semester

Amid mixed University messaging, faculty are navigating questions and excitement with in-person classes

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ASU President Michael Crow meets with The State Press editorial board on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, at the Fulton Center on the ASU Tempe campus.

When Abigail York, professor and director of graduate studies in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, entered her first in-person class of the semester on Aug. 19, she didn't know what to expect. 

Although she has been teaching a course titled Money and Culture at ASU for over 10 years, York was unsure of how her class of around 170 students would react to its first day of in-person classes after being away from campus for so long. 

But York said she was pleasantly surprised to find that not only were a number of her students early to class, but most of them were wearing masks.

ASU's face cover policy, updated on Aug. 11, requires face coverings in indoor areas where social distancing is not possible, such as classrooms and labs. The University also continues to  "recommend strongly" that every person gets vaccinated. 

With those policies in place, the University welcomed back over 77,000 students to ASU's four campuses at the start of the fall semester, and emotions ran high not just for the returning students but for the faculty as well.

Ian Derk, a lecturer in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said that although he was excited to engage with students face to face, this semester seemed similar to the spring in regards to the pressure on students and faculty.  

"I think that there's a lot put on students and faculty to sort of make ASU work," Derk said. "I think a lot of COVID precautions and COVID protocols only work because students and faculty do it, and sometimes, I think (students and faculty) exceed what the administration expects them to do."

Professors implementing masking

In a meeting with The State Press Friday, ASU President Michael Crow said faculty should not police students who are unmasked. Instead, they should reach out to their dean of students. 

"We don't want the faculty with that burden, we want the faculty to teach," Crow said. 

Joanne Vogel, vice president of student services, however, said if a student does not comply with the mask mandate, it would be best for a faculty member to pull the student aside for a conversation after class. If a discussion about masking does not change anything, then faculty members can send the policy violator to the dean of students. 

Vogel said students who still choose not to comply with the mandate may face greater intervention. 

"There is the ability at the end of the day for us to think about, 'are they ready to be a member of our community, or do they need to be a member of our community in an online-only format?'" Vogel said.

York, who taught a class of undergraduates on the first day of school, said the few students who did not come to class wearing face coverings put them on when prompted. York also said she gave one student a disposable mask that was available in the classroom.

"There was great buy-in to the idea that we're a community; we need to try to protect one another. And that was really very reassuring," York said.

Derk, who said he had around 10% of his students arrive to class without a face covering, said having masks on hand from the University helped. However, he said that if students had mask compliance issues in the future, he was not sure outsourcing the conflict to the dean of students would help him in the moment. 

It can be "really hard to maintain a classroom if we have to wait for someone outside to make those determinations," Derk said.

Classroom coverage

If an instructor or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19, they should work with their department chair, their dean and the provost to determine the best course of action, which is likely one of two options, Vogel said.

Faculty can either work through the provost's office to Zoom onto a screen in the classroom, or they can establish a "buddy" who can take over their class until they are able to resume teaching, Vogel said.

Crow, however, said that options really depend on the situation. 

"Typically if it's just like one class or two classes, maybe the class wouldn't even meet, and you might then have a makeup session or something, or you got another faculty member to come in and fill in or the senior TA might fill in," Crow said. 

So far, the University has not set up any official means to facilitate the buddy process among faculty. In trusting that staff will know best who can take over teaching a class in the event of an infection, ASU is expecting instructors to develop their own emergency plans, Vogel said.

"We've asked them to work it out," Vogel said.

Derk said he thinks the buddy system might would work for short term absences, but it is not an effective plan. In his college, the buddy system would be difficult to implement, he said. 

"The problem that everyone in our college pointed out is that almost all of our classes are scheduled at really similar times, and we don't have a ton of faculty to just draw from," Derk said. "So if one person gets sick, so many of our classes are at the same time, there's no buddy to go to."

Rather than find a buddy if he were to get sick, Derk said he would probably just set up a Zoom class using equipment he already has at home. 

Although he has not heard anything about implementing the buddy system, Daniel Bliss, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, said its effectiveness may depend on each individual department. He is not very concerned about needing to find coverage due to serious illness because not only is he vaccinated, but he is part of a larger school. 

"For schools or departments that are smaller, I could understand that it might be more difficult to get coverage. But in our case, it's not a significant concern," Bliss said. 

York's unit has also not yet set up any type of partnering, but she said she feels confident that her director would help ensure her class was covered if needed.

"They're grappling with a really challenging situation and we're trying to provide the best education we can to students while also making sure that people are safe," York said.

Students testing positive

To keep information confidential, whether or not a professor is told that a student in their class has tested positive for the virus is dependent on the level of exposure, Vogel said. 

"It's not a given that we're going to contact the faculty member, because we're leaving that contact to the student to manage their own health condition," Vogel said. 

However, if a faculty member is identified as close contact, they may need to be asked to quarantine, Vogel said.

Faculty who have students disclose their positive status have been asked to email the dean of students in case ASU is not aware of the student's virus status.

Derk said he has not received any specific guidance from the University on how students who cannot attend in-person classes because of the virus or possible exposure should access class material. Instead, Derk, along with Bliss, set up his own process for students who test positive. 

"I mean, maybe I'm interpreting sometimes as no directive as kind of a 'figure it out on your own,' which can be good, or it can be bad, depending on your perspective, but I think I haven't gotten any information on exactly what to do," Derk said.

Bliss said he plans to have students who need to miss class attend through Zoom, simply because it is the easiest choice.

"Fortunately, we have the infrastructure so they can watch remotely. It clearly is not the same as being there, but it has been useful," Bliss said.  

Students and the faculty

Despite the challenges of navigating the University's COVID-19 protocols, many professors are just excited to be back with students.

"I think every faculty member I've encountered wants to be back in person if they could do it in a way that feels safe," Derk said.

So far, Bliss is proud of his students for following the health protocols and is looking forward to engaging with students throughout the semester.

"I have to say, it was really wonderful for me to be able to teach in person in front of a bunch of human beings instead of little black rectangles," Bliss said.

York said she is energized by her students. Although she is worried about students' well-being during the pandemic, their work has been amazing, York said.

"I'm just so impressed by how all of our students are navigating the challenges, and really, that restores a lot of faith within the higher education system, but (also) just students as people and their humanity," York said.

But with the work of the students and faculty in mind, Derk feels like the administration is watching ASU work through the growing pains from afar.

"Sometimes I think that a lot of students and faculty are asked to do the really heroic lifting," Derk said. "Sometimes I think some upper administration could be a little more measured and adjust their expectations."

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