Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The July memo was blunt. Students at Sam Houston State University had been promised “direct contact” with faculty, and even in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, the Huntsville school needed to deliver, Provost Richard Eglsaer told the faculty.
“Since students pay tuition to have in-person instruction, they are free to opt out of it by choosing the remote option,” Eglsaer wrote. “However, as faculty we are paid to teach in person and therefore the option of entirely remote instruction is not open to us.”
When fall classes resumed on campus, Eglsaer wrote, social distancing would not always be possible, and underlying health risks would not qualify faculty to teach only remote classes.
Students returned to campus this week, and the school will try to remain flexible, accommodating individuals with health risks or high-risk family members, university President Alisa White told faculty in a statement Friday. But she said she wasn't comfortable starting the fall semester without in-person instruction, as faculty had requested. As it reopens, the university is reporting 99 COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff.
Like Sam Houston State, most Texas universities are plunging forward with varying degrees of in-person teaching this semester, eager to preserve some semblance of a normal academic year.
They're asking reluctant instructors to cooperate, but some faculty members call the pressure to return to face-to-face instruction a callous decision that prioritizes money and the college experience over the safety of the university community.
“People are pretty upset and feeling like they’re being forced into a situation that's really unsafe,” said Jay Ganz, a special education professor at Texas A&M University’s College Station flagship. “We’re being treated as guinea pigs.”
Ganz, who has tenure and was able to request remote work through the Americans With Disabilities Act, said faculty members received several emails from the Texas A&M administration in the early days of the pandemic pressuring them to return to campus for in-person instruction.
“There were a lot of emails saying we needed to sacrifice and volunteer to teach face-to-face and that the risk had to be shared,” Ganz said. “The university seems to be really focused on ... pushing faculty to teach face-to-face to the limits of their liability.”
In an interview, Provost Carol Fierke said Texas A&M prioritized granting remote-only requests from individuals in the highest risk-categories designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If faculty members didn't fit in those categories and still wanted to teach remotely, they were asked to have conversations with their department heads about specific accommodations.
"In order to do what was fair and transparent, we had to pick some medical guidelines, and that was what we chose," Fierke said. "Our goals are twofold: to give students the best possible experience as safely as possible."
Texas A&M will have around 1,800 faculty members teaching courses with an in-person component and 1,300 teaching online-only classes, Fierke said. Around 45% of the school's credit hours this semester will offered in person.
Faculty members at some of the A&M’s 10 other campuses have expressed fears in an open letter to the A&M System that asks for the flexibility to move to online-only classes. The letter has garnered over 900 signatures, many from faculty members at the system's San Antonio and Corpus Christi campuses, who say their communities cannot risk any surges in COVID-19 cases linked to campus returns.
They point to system officials including Chancellor John Sharp as the source of the pressure to reopen. Sharp has long maintained that the campus experience is invaluable and has championed normal campus activity.
"You can get a degree online, but it's very hard to become an Aggie online," Sharp said during a board of regents meeting earlier this summer.
In a statement responding to the petition, Sharp and Elaine Mendoza, chair of the A&M board of regents, stressed the measures the system has taken to ensure a safe return, including monthly distribution of 15,000 COVID-19 tests across all institutions.
“The Texas A&M System leadership and our university presidents have worked for months on reopening plans that emphasize the safety of our students, faculty and staff, while also recognizing the educational benefits of in-person instruction when feasible,” the statement reads. “It is inevitable that people will differ on how best to respond to this pandemic. We recognized that by providing online and remote choices while also responding to those students and faculty members who value the classroom experience.”
The University of Texas at Austin, meanwhile, is anticipating that students in nearly 75% of class seats and over 60% of faculty members — or 1,859 instructors — will be learning and teaching online only this fall. The school provides accommodations based on CDC guidelines and is working with faculty seeking course delivery changes, spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email.
"If an instructor can demonstrate to their supervisor that their class can be taught online, then accommodations would be made and necessary resources provided to adjust the coursework delivery to remote instruction," Bird said.
Nationally, most universities are allowing faculty to request accommodations under federal disability laws if they are at high risk, said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who has been tracking university responses to COVID-19. To a lesser extent, colleges are allowing faculty with high-risk family members to do the same.
But allowing faculty members to work from home because of individual safety concerns does not seem to be the norm, Kelchen said.
“Administrators are in a tough spot,” Kelchen said. “There are enough students who want to be in person that if they don’t offer it, they may lose those students and revenue. But if you don’t work with your faculty to find solutions, you’ve alienated your faculty. And that may take a generation to heal.”
At Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, sociology professor Isabel Araiza will be teaching more than 35 students in the same room beginning Thursday, her first of two in-person classes this semester.
Araiza lives down the street from her mother, who has cancer and has spent the pandemic indoors. Araiza had been keeping herself indoors too — until she learned that her university’s reopening plan relied heavily on in-person instruction and she would need to return.
“I am incredibly anxious, to be honest,” Araiza said. “Logistically, I don’t think the university has thought through everything. And it seems problematic — they’re catering to a very small, privileged group that are thinking about the college experience as opposed to learning in the midst of a pandemic.”
In an email, Provost Clarenda Phillips said that safety measures had been put in place and that faculty members with health risks wanting to change course delivery were able to go through “official university procedure.” The school will have 296 instructors teaching some portion of their courses in person, representing 66% of faculty.
At Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the problem is compounded by the devastating effects of the virus, which has ravaged the surrounding region. Corpus Christi and four other predominantly Hispanic communities in South Texas — Brownsville-Harlingen, Eagle Pass, Rio Grande City and Laredo — have the highest rates of new coronavirus cases per capita in the country, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
“It feels like passive genocide. You know that you’re going to kill people, make people sick, affect their life chances, cause emotional strain and financial ruin to families in Corpus,” Araiza said. “You know that, but you’re still going to do it because of this ‘college experience.’”
Earlier this summer, Texas State University’s faculty senate released survey results that expressed “serious concerns” about the San Marcos school's plan to return to campus in late August.
Over 700 faculty members responded to the survey, with 91% indicating they were concerned about adherence to guidelines for wearing masks and social distancing, and 88% saying they are concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19 while working on campus.
The university has long pushed for an in-person return. In July, administrators scheduled in-person summer classes, later backtracking and curtailing class capacity as COVID-19 conditions in surrounding Hays County worsened.
Now, the Texas State faculty is asking the university to afford greater flexibility in switching to online classes before school begins Aug. 24. In an email, a university spokesperson said administrators have reevaluated several requests that were previously denied and granted more faculty members the online-only option. There will be around 1,200 faculty members teaching courses with an in-person component.
At some universities, public pressure drove the administration to relax policies around working from home.
At the start of the summer, Texas Christian University had a strict standard for remote teaching: Faculty and staff had to file requests under ADA guidelines, then wait for approval.
When Jason Helms, an English professor at TCU, put in a request to teach online because of his young daughter’s heart condition, he was denied because it was a family member who was immunocompromised, not him. His tweet about the situation later went viral and garnered sympathy as well as media attention.
In an email, a TCU spokesperson said all instructors were later able to request online courses, a reversal of previous policy that allowed Helms to stay home this semester.
“This was because of public pressure. That’s what really pushed it,” Helms said.
Disclosure: Sam Houston State University, Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M University System, Texas Christian University, Texas State University, the University of Texas at Austin and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.