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Faculty at South Dakota State University are among those concerned about the spreading of COVID-19 as the state’s universities prepare for students to come back to school this fall. (SD News Watch Photo)

University Faculty Concerned

Fear COVID-19 Outbreaks On Campus

The plan to return to faceto-face teaching and learning at colleges in South Dakota in August is causing great concern among faculty and staff who fear that campuses across the state could become sources of major outbreaks of the potentially deadly coronavirus.

Though extensive planning and preparation are underway to make campuses as safe as possible amid the pandemic, many college employees are worried that bringing thousands of young adults

from across the state, country and world together in campus classrooms, residence halls and administration buildings will lead to COVID-19 outbreaks among the staff, students or their families.

“I really want to see the students again, and I want to see them face to face,” said Timothy Schorn, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. “But I’m very concerned that what we’re doing on college campuses is creating the new round of COVID hot spots.” A petition seeking to give stu

A petition seeking to give students and faculty the right to decide on their own to teach and learn remotely if they do not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning has been shared among faculty since early July, and has garnered more than 100 signatures. The petition was sent to Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher in mid-July.

Many of the concerns center around the fact that even if protections against the virus are present in classrooms and campus buildings, students will create risks by arriving on campus after spending the summer elsewhere, by living very active and social lifestyles, by gathering in groups and by not taking preventive steps against spreading the virus in their personal time.

Mark Geary, a Dakota State University professor who is president of the statewide faculty union, said that even with mandatory mask usage, social distancing and other protective measures in classrooms and other buildings, he expects to see outbreaks of COVID-19 on campuses in South Dakota this fall. “My gut feeling is that if they

“My gut feeling is that if they come in and say our campuses are open, you’re going to start having football games and then after-parties and then two weeks after your first home game, you’re likely to see a spike,” he said. “My rough guess is that you’re going to see major outbreaks on some campuses.”

Geary said faculty are concerned that students may be active spreaders of COVID-19 because of their lifestyles. “All of us go through a phase in

“All of us go through a phase in our late teens and early 20s when we believe we’re immortal, so they’re in a risk-taking group,” said Geary, recalling that he rode a motorcycle from Florida to Iowa without a helmet more than once when he was in college. “That’s a normal part of growing up, but there’s some risks you can recover from and there’s some risks where you make a mistake and you can’t recover from it.”

The Board of Regents, which governs the university system, announced on May 1 that all six universities and two special schools in the system would return to in-person teaching for the fall semester. The six universities will begin classes on Aug. 19 and end in-person teaching on Nov. 24, with all finals exams to be administered remotely.

Universities are undergoing significant planning and preparation for the return to classes, including extensive cleaning, installation of protective barriers, providing of sanitizer and protective equipment, and reconfiguring of classrooms to ensure social distancing.

The Regents voted unanimously on Wednesday, July 22, to begin the academic year with a requirement that masks be worn inside all public buildings on campus. The Level 3 designation, the third-most stringent on a scale of 1-4, will be reviewed and could be changed after 30 days. Individual universities can also request a change in level at any time if conditions change on their campus.

Masks will also be required in indoor settings at four private colleges in South Dakota, including Augustana University, Dakota Wesleyan University, Presentation College and the University of Sioux Falls.

The decision to return to in-person learning has been vexing for college administrators across the country, as most place a high value on in-person instruction but must also balance public health risks.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking re-opening plans of 1,200 colleges across America and, as of July 16, reported that 55% planned for in-person classes; 30% were implementing a hybrid model with inperson and remote classes; 10% were holding classes online only; and the rest were still in planning stages. A vast majority of South Dakota

A vast majority of South Dakota faculty who responded to a recent survey by the Council for Higher Education, the union that represents South Dakota faculty, do not feel confident that face-to-face teaching can be done safely on South Dakota campuses in the fall.

Only 8.6% of the 81 faculty members who responded to the survey — sent out before the mask mandate — said they were confident of a safe return. More than half said they would prefer to maintain remote learning in the fall, and about 34% said they had some concerns or significant concerns about whether it will be safe.

Brian Maher, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, said he understands the concerns of those who will soon return to campus.

“I don’t think fearful is too dramatic; I think that is appropriate,” Maher said. “Quite frankly, I share all those emotions; I think any citizen in the state shares those emotions.”

But after a summer of planning and preparation, Maher said he feels in-person teaching and learning on campuses can be done safely. “I have my own children of the

“I have my own children of the age where they could be instructors, and I would feel very comfortable with them being in that classroom as an instructor or a student,” Maher said. “Anybody who has watched the deliberate approach the Board of Regents has taken, and anybody who has talked to a campus president about the deliberate, calculated method they have used in terms of coming to where they are today … I think people would find comfort in all of the research, all the data and all the care that have gotten us to where we are today.” Maher said that maintaining pub

Maher said that maintaining public health on campuses will continue to be a process that could result in a change in tier levels regarding mask usage or changes in educational delivery methods at individual campuses or systemwide.

“It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have some fear; I certainly would still have some fear,” he said. “But I think to the extent that we can, we’ve mitigated that issue, because it’s a dynamic issue and we haven’t come to the concluding point of this issue.”

He added: “We’ll see where we are in August and we’ll see where we are in September.”

Sara Lampert, a professor at USD, wants faculty, staff and students to make their own choice of whether to return to face-to-face teaching and learning on South Dakota campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Courtesy Sara Lampert

Speaking Out About Safety

Sara Lampert is a history professor at USD who also serves as coordinator of the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies program. Lampert has deep concerns about returning to in-person classes on campus and also about how decisions have been made in the university system regarding COVID-19.

Lampert said she authored the petition after becoming concerned about safety on campus in the fall, and when it became clear that even though the university asked for input from faculty and staff, the concerns they raised weren’t taken fully into account.

“We were asked to bring concerns or questions, but the process isn’t really transparent, and folks who did bring concerns didn’t get much response,” Lampert said. “It was prompted by a growing feeling among faculty that our concerns weren’t being heard, but also that we were not very clear about the process according to which we could potentially teach online.”

Lampert’s petition made four major requests: that faculty have the ability to teach remotely if they wish; that no student be required to attend in-person classes; that academic advising be allowed to take place remotely; and that no instructor or student be required to disclose personal or family medical information in order to justify a request to teach or learn online.

Lampert said she understands and is sympathetic to the difficult decisions the Regents and university leaders must make heading into the new semester amid a pandemic, and believes they are trying hard to keep people safe. She said she also realizes that some instructors want to return to class, and she supports their right to do so. “We’re all really concerned and

“We’re all really concerned and empathetic to each other’s fears and the pressures we’re under, and that the leadership of our institution is in a tight spot,” Lampert said. “But we want our colleagues to feel safe teaching and feel like they actually have a choice over the environment they’re put into in the fall.”

But Lampert said that given the potentially life-threatening consequenc

es of the virus, and its high potential for airborne spread in confined indoor settings, everyone on campus should have the right to decide if they want to learn, teach or work remotely.

“The people who want to be able to protect themselves, their families and their students, not to mention their communities, by teaching online don’t have a choice in that,” said Lampert, who was happy to hear of the mask mandate.

Waivers Allowed For Medical Reasons

Some staff and faculty members have received waivers that will allow them to work from home or teach entirely online and not have to hold inperson classes or advising.

The process to obtain a waiver was shared with faculty across the university system in the summer and was handled by human-resources officials at each campus, said Janelle Toman, spokeswoman for the Regents.

The accommodation decisions were guided by university-system HR policies and procedures within the Americans with Disabilities Act, Toman said.

“As with any accommodation request under the ADA, university administration across the system engage in an interactive process with those faculty and staff members to identify if a reasonable accommodation can be provided,” Toman wrote in an email to News Watch.

In terms of determining whether some classes are held in person or online, Toman wrote: “The primary factor that determines course delivery methods is based on the section size and space available to adequately follow CDC’s guidance on social/physical distancing.”

Toman did not provide the number of employees who have requested or received a waiver.

Faculty and staff at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City were given the opportunity to seek a waiver based on CDC guidelines for conditions that put someone at risk of complications from COVID-19, such as cancer, kidney disease, chronic pulmonary disease, Type 2 diabetes, immunocompromised conditions, sickle-cell disease, heart disease and obesity.

In all, about two dozen faculty and staff members of the roughly 450 people on campus were granted waivers to work remotely, said Charles Michael Ray, a university spokesman. Ray said that other employees are being allowed to work remotely if they obtain supervisor permission. About 10 of 150 faculty members were among those who received formal waivers, he said.

Furthermore, the school has assigned some faculty and staff to work remotely in shifts in order to reduce employee interaction in confined workspaces, Ray said.

Potential Financial Implications

Bringing students back to campus and making it safe enough to keep them there through the fall and into the spring is important to preserve the educational and social benefits of the college experience, but it is also important from a financial standpoint.

A 15% drop in enrollment in the 2020 academic year — a prediction cited by national experts when the pandemic hit — would cost the university system an estimated $48 million in revenue.

Maher said that as of mid-July, enrollment systemwide was expected to be flat or down “less than double digits” in percentage.

But universities could still see major revenue losses if students do not return to campus for a full semester or if campuses close at any point due to an outbreak.

When South Dakota universities shut down and reverted to online learning last spring, schools lost millions in revenue. USD and SDSU alone lost a combined $9.2 million in reimbursements made to students for housing, fees and parking.

South Dakota Board Of Regents Mask Policy

Here is a condensed look at the four-level mask usage policy approved on July 22 by the South Dakota Board of Regents for its six universities and two special schools. The Regents voted to begin the academic year at Level 3, with a review to be done after 30 days. The protocols apply to all students, staff, faculty and campus visitors.

Level 1: requires face coverings in all classroom or lab settings where course delivery requires close proximity or physical contact and makes Centers for Disease Control recommendations on physical distancing impractical. Examples are instructional laboratories, clinical training environments, and design or art studio instruction.

Level 2: requires face coverings in all public areas of academic buildings on campus (including classrooms, hallways, and common areas), along with other indoor areas where 30 or more individuals frequently congregate or interact in a setting not conducive to maintaining CDC-recommended physical distancing.

Level 3: requires face coverings in all public indoor spaces on campus.

Level 4: requires face coverings in all public indoor and outdoor areas of campus. Students, faculty and staff and visitors can all face different forms of informal and formal enforcement, starting with alerting them to the violation. In extreme cases, a student could be restricted from certain places or from campus entirely, a faculty member or employee could face formal employment discipline, and visitors could face removal from campus.

Source: South Dakota Board of Regents

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