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University of Louisville threatens to discipline faculty who don't teach classes in person

This article was originally published in the Curiour Journal on January 10 2022 and later published on Yahoo News on January 11 2022

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — University of Louisville faculty, staff and students are in an uproar over the administration’s refusal to allow classes to be taught remotely. 

As the new semester began Monday, more than 500 professors, staff, students, parents and other community members have signed a petition to allow courses to be offered online. 

One of the signers, an administrator in the Speed School, wrote the “wish for normalcy should not supersede the need for safety,” while a graduate teaching assistant said, “Please be dedicated to BEING SAFE, not dedicated to being in person.”  

Shannon Madison, a student, said, “I am three weeks from open-heart surgery and have to come to class in person with a collapsed lung.”  

Faculty members also denounced the policy Monday afternoon at a meeting of the College of Arts & Sciences, the university's largest unit, with nearly 800 professors and staff.

Citing a directive from Interim President Lori Stewart Gonzalez, Professor David Owens, the interim dean of arts and science, told department chairs Sunday that courses designated as in-person may not be moved online and “violations may result in discipline.”

He said Gonzalez made it clear there is "no wiggle room" on the policy.

University spokesman John Karman on Monday affirmed the administration's stance on in-person classes.

"Because the science shows that classroom learning is safe and more effective, we feel it is vital to provide the best educational experience possible for our students," Karman said in a statement.

Tricia Gray, an associate professor of political science and chair of that department, called the directive "ridiculous and short-sighted" at a meeting Monday afternoon attended by about 70 faculty and staff.

"To threaten seems very extreme and not in keeping with the message of a caring community," she said.

Ricky Jones, chairman of the Pan-African Studies department and a columnist for The Courier Journal, said he would defy the order if necessary.

"I am not going to punish a faculty member who tells me they feel unsafe, even if it means I am removed as chairman," Jones said.

Astronomy Professor Gerard Williger said about 10% of his students with the virus have begun making recordings of his classes to give to those who can't attend class.

U of L argues risk is low for vaccinated people

In an email Sunday to the “Cardinal community,” Gonzalez said the university planned to begin the semester with "in-person instruction and normal business operations,” in part because of the risk of “severe illness to fully vaccinated individuals from contracting COVID remains very low.” 

She also said students' academic performance and mental well-being suffered during remote instruction.

The crackdown on remote instruction comes amid a surge in the omicron variant of COVID-19 that prompted Jefferson County Public Schools to move to virtual learning this week and Northern Kentucky University to push back the start of the semester a week to Jan. 18.

The University of Kentucky also began the semester Monday with in-person classes, but without the threat of sanctions for violators.

Acting Provost Robert DiPaola said in an email that moving "an in-person class early in the semester online for one or two weeks is not backed by the data and the science of the likely trajectory of the virus."

More:Louisville's mass COVID-19 test site opens as omicron drives cases 'unfathomably high'

Still, he said, "Given the current variant transmission, short-term disruptions may occur, and accommodations may be needed should an instructor become COVID positive, for example."

U of L faculty say they want flexibility

In a previous email to faculty in the University of Louisville's College of Arts and Sciences, Owen acknowledged concerns about the variant but said it is “important that we have policies that apply equitably to all faculty and staff.” 

In the memo to department chairs, Owen reminded them as appointees of the board of trustees, they have a responsibility to “uphold and enforce university policy.” 

Professors say they are not asking for the university to go to remote instruction entirely but instead give instructors the flexibility to teach online if their safety or the students’ safety demands it. 

“No one is trying to get out of doing our jobs,” Lauren Haberle, an associate professor of sociology, said in an email to Owen and others. “And no one should be afraid of being ‘disciplined’ for trying to do our jobs the best way we know how.” 

Kalasia Ojeh, an assistant professor in the Department of Pan-African Studies and co-chair of the college’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, told Owen in an email that it “stands in support and solidarity” with the right of faculty, staff and students' right to “teach, work and learn in any modality that supports their health and safety.” 

As of Monday morning, the online petition had been signed by 179 students, 109 faculty members, 72 staff, 480 alumni and 18 parents. The petition was created by United Campus Workers of Kentucky.

Beth Edwardson, who identified herself as a parent, said her daughter is a law student who is immunocompromised because of her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

Ginan Kurdi, a student who also signed the petition, wrote: “Please move to online. I live with my family of six, and my mother is positive and sick.” 

Corey Feger, an academic counselor, said: “Having our safety disregarded by the administration is hurtful enough, but having it disregarded at the salary I’m paid is frankly insulting.”

Owen said he has no choice but to follow the president's directive but he agrees with it because studies have shown instruction is not as effective online as in class especially for first- and second-year students.

He also said that faculty who contract the virus and have to isolate may teach classes online from home.