Dear Commons Community,
While higher education is following closely which colleges are deciding to open this fall for face-to-face or online teaching, there is increasing activity in terms of accommodating individual faculty requests to teach remotely due to health concerns for themselves or loved ones. The Chronicle of Higher Education this morning analyzes this issue with several examples of faculty who are formally requesting accommodations to teach online for health reasons. Here is an excerpt:
“Faculty organizations at some colleges are contesting the idea that it’s preferable to teach in person. In an open letter to Pennsylvania State University administration, faculty members affirmed that they “believe in the importance of the university as a physical site of face-to-face dialogue and debate.” Nevertheless, all people “have the right to protect their own well-being,” the letter said. Should students return to campus, instructors should have autonomy over how they want to teach, attend meetings, and hold office hours, the letter said, and no one should be obligated to disclose personal health information as a justification for such decisions.
At the University of Notre Dame, more than 140 faculty members signed a petition, arguing the same. Faculty members “should be allowed to make their own prudential judgments about whether to teach in-person classes,” it said. Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications said the university expects faculty members to be available for in-person classes, unless an individual person’s circumstance “results in an exception,” The Chronicle previously reported. Faculty members can fill out an accommodation-request form, which asks employees to disclose if they fall into one of the categories identified as being high risk for Covid-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Faculty members have complained that those accommodation-request forms offer a narrow interpretation of who is at risk from face-to-face instruction. What about faculty members who have concerns because they are older but not yet 65 — the age group specified by the CDC as high risk? What about those who fear getting infected, regardless of their own underlying conditions, and who feel they can perform their jobs remotely? Or those who aren’t caretakers but regularly interact with aging parents?
There’s evidence that some colleges are considering those broader questions. Sean D. Ehrlich, an associate professor of political science at Florida State University, said on Twitter that his dean had assured faculty members that no one will be made to teach in person this fall.
At TCU and elsewhere, instructors waiting to hear if their accommodation requests are approved may ultimately face difficult choices.
Helms, at Texas Christian, already told his family that he won’t teach in person this fall no matter what. Even if his second accommodation request isn’t approved through the university’s FMLA plan, it’s not worth the risk, he said. Since the beginning of June, coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas have climbed and hit record highs for a full week, The Texas Tribune reported on Thursday. Texas Christian’s own general counsel, Larry Leroy “Lee” Tyner Jr., told a U.S. Senate committee that when colleges reopen, there will be no way to assure that no one will bring the virus onto campus.
“Spread is foreseeable,” he told the committee in May, “perhaps inevitable.”
Naomi Ekas, an associate professor of psychology at Texas Christian, feels like she’s between a rock and a hard place. Ekas said her husband has multiple medical conditions that place him in the CDC’s high-risk category for Covid-19 complications, and, like Helms, she applied to be able to teach remotely this fall. And like Helms, Ekas received word on Wednesday that her request for ADA accommodation was denied because she didn’t meet the requirements. The email also told her that employees who are “the primary caregiver” of an individual with disabilities might be eligible for job-protected leave through the FMLA.
Ekas, too, said she was confused and unsure about what recourse she had. Chambers, TCU’s chief human-resources officer, said in an emailed statement to The Chronicle that the university does not comment on personnel matters but they are working with individual concerns “to find solutions, correct misinformation, and resolve misunderstandings.”
Ekas said she’s worried that she won’t qualify because she’s not technically a primary caregiver for her husband. If she isn’t permitted to teach her one class remotely, Ekas said she’ll be faced with a choice: Breach her contract or teach in person and put her husband at risk.”
Colleges opening up their campuses will have interesting decisions to make regarding faculty requests to teach online. It is my sense that there will many more of these requests than expected as faculty seek to protect themselves and loved ones.