CORONAVIRUS

Scores of University of Iowa educators urge reversal of in-person instruction

Group asks the UI to start fall semester online only

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — Scores of University of Iowa instructors and professors are demanding their campus shift away from its plan for a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning this fall and start the semester entirely online.

Citing a rise of COVID-19 cases in Iowa, more than 250 UI educators have signed a pledge to provide “only safe, high-quality online teaching” this fall, and plan to release more details Tuesday about it.

Although the group hasn’t explicitly stated that the educators would refuse to return to the classroom — even if they or courses they teach don’t meet UI guidelines on risk and size for going virtual — associate professor Megan Knight said some likely will rebuff a face-to-face mandate.

“There are plenty who signed on who would like to teach online but don’t have a health condition” that qualifies for an exemption to in-person classes, Knight said. “I don’t know what their decision would be if they’re told … you have to go into the classroom.”

Responses will vary by person and according to each individual circumstances, she said.

“But there are probably people who will feel they are cornered and have some pretty bad options,” said Knight, who said she recently received an administrative OK to teach all her courses on line.

Had she not, Knight said, “I was prepared to say, ‘I’m not willing to go back in the classroom. It’s too dangerous.”

The Iowa Board of Regents — followed by top administrators across its three public universities — for months has been vowing to return their tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff to campus for an in-person experience this fall.

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Those promises came after all three hurriedly moved instruction online mid-March after COVID-19 was confirmed in Iowa — canceling sporting and other events; closing research labs; and curtailing collegiate rites of passage like commencement.

Although understanding of the need to quickly shift online and evacuate the campuses last spring, many students have made clear their preference for in-person learning when possible.

And the regents and universities — faced with massive budget blows and fear of lost tuition income — have promised to try, instituting widespread health and safety measures like mandating masks in public, reconfiguring classrooms and adjusting ventilation.

“We understand and hear your concerns regarding face to face instruction and that is why we are working to provide as much flexibility as possible to students, faculty, and staff during the pandemic,” the UI said in a release Monday in response to the educators, noting those mitigation steps as well as a plan to have any class of 50 or more be online only, and to have provisions for classes smaller than that to go online or to a hybrid format also if circumstances warrant.

“It will also be necessary to offer some courses and sections online due to the COVID-19 health concerns of some students and instructors,” the response from the UI said.

However, the group of educators hopes to gain more support for the petition when it goes public Tuesday.

“The new public petition to be launched Tuesday will call on the University of Iowa to become a responsible community health partner by doing everything in its power to limit the spread of the coronavirus, starting with offering online-only instruction and requiring remote work whenever possible,” according to the petition.

The demand came as students Monday continued moving in to UI, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa residence halls and with the state reporting hundreds more new coronavirus cases.

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“The instructors’ pledge reflects growing concerns that failed state and national responses to the spread of COVID-19, including the absence of mask mandates or comprehensive testing and tracing systems, are making it impossible for major institutions like universities to reopen safely,” according to a news release from the protesting educators.

“At present, the UI is still planning in-person instruction for classes of up to 50 students.”

UI officials affirmed that Monday, disseminating more information about what the campus experience will entail this fall — including a list of where students can pick up kits of personal protective equipment including masks, which will be mandatory.

But concerned faculty and staff argue those precautions aren’t enough, compelling their focus on online instruction out of an “obligation to model rational, evidence-based decision-making for our students, and to lead with commitments based on the sound guidance of epidemiologists and public health experts, including many of our own respected colleagues.”

The group has called a news conference for Tuesday, at which local elected officials are expected to speak about “the impact that campus reopening could have on the broader community.”

“The risk isn’t going to be worth it for some,” Knight said.

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