With no end in sight for a so-far incurable COVID-19 virus, higher education institutions have been under intense pressure, as of late, to come up with clear and astute plans for the Fall of 2020. As reported in The Chronicle for Higher Education, more than half of universities polled have stated that they will indeed return for in-person classes in the fall. Yet, what tactics each university will utilize in maintaining student health and social distancing standards seem to vary immensely between each school. 

In May, the Higher Education Subcommittee sent a press release through the Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lemont’s office regarding their recommendations for a phased reopening of Connecticut colleges and universities. They stated quite clearly that “the diversity of the state’s colleges and universities — from community colleges to major research universities—requires customized plans for reopening; one size will not fit all.” 

Sacred Heart University released a comprehensive plan for the fall in late May. They will begin their fall semester in late August as originally planned but will cancel the Columbus Day holiday break and wrap up instruction in time for Thanksgiving Break. This, in turn, will negate the need for substantial student travel during long weekends and keep everyone on campus as much as possible. On their website, they have a detailed question and answer section on whether course difficulty will change with the new time table, about the guidelines for temperature checks, etc. All of this has been posted in their nearly weekly update to the Sacred Heart community. 

Quinnipiac University has an equally acute plan for the Fall of 2020. They will utilize the “Q-Flex” approach to have the same course offered both through in-class and virtual instruction. Quinnipiac also has a detailed question and answer page, with just over 200 questions answered regarding COVID-19. 

Unlike both Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart, Yale University is waiting until early July to release a comprehensive plan. They’re following a path that many schools have followed in planning processes for the fall: forming subcommittees, or “task forces.” Simplistically speaking, this breaks down the hierarchical structure of a university body. Instead of allowing most of the decisions for reopening to come from the president’s office, these subcommittees made up of individuals who would be directly impacted by the reopening plan are able to speak on the plan. For example, if there was a task force focusing on the changes being made to the guest policy, the Department of Public Safety would sit on that decision rather than the Career Center. To ensure transparency during the planning process, Yale has listed the members of each task-force, or “Contingency Planning Committee.” This allows students to have direct access to who’s involved in making paramount decisions for the reopening plans for the fall. 

Fairfield University, on the other hand, waited to release a statement on reopening plans a week behind the other Connecticut based institutions. This follows the same timeline of their release of statements during the Spring semester of 2020. As Fairfield was one of the last higher education facilities to confirm instruction to be fully virtual for the rest of the semester. President of Fairfield University Marc Nemec Ph. D.’s letter was received a full week behind those sent by Quinnipiac University and Sacred Heart University even though Fairfield County was on track to be a “hot spot” within the state.

On June 9, Dr. Nemec released the “Stags Come Home” plan in an email to both the students and staff. In this rather brief update, Dr. Nemec mentioned that students will move in beginning on August 24, that classes will resume on Sept. 1 and conclude on Dec. 21, that there will be no fall semester break over Columbus Day weekend and that students will have the option to return to campus after Thanksgiving break to finish the semester or to remain at home and finish online. Though he left out many of the larger details for how Fairfield would manage a reopening, stating that more details will be released at the end of the month, he did provide some updates. Summer classes have been moved to complete online instruction, with a small selection to be done in-person as a “pilot program.” He also revealed that Fairfield is utilizing a “cross-functional University task force” to plan for reopening. 

The “how” of this plan is being decided by the “task force” that Dr. Nemec mentioned, like many other universities are utilizing. Many within the university question the validity behind the idea that the task force is cross-functional.” Irene Mulvey, professor of mathematics, chair of the mathematics department and President of the Faculty Welfare Committee or American Association of University Professors (AAUP) stated that she doesn’t know what “cross-functional” means in terms of the task-force and “any important Task Force should include faculty representatives selected by the faculty to be their representatives.”

The AAUP, the association that Mulvey is a president of, was started in 1915 to protect the freedom and voice of university professors. Now the organization has a membership of nearly 45,000 professors nationwide, and 75 percent of the full-time faculty at Fairfield University is a part of Mulvey’s chapter. Other than the AAUP, there’s another governing body involved in the decision making at Fairfield, the academic council.

The academic council is “the executive arm of the general faculty.” It is a smaller group of members of the faculty who are voted onto the council by their peers. They’re tasked with making much of the decisions for the 250 members of the general faculty, which includes all full-time university faculty members, the President of the university, the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Academic Deans, and the University Librarian. 

The University’s COVID-19 task force was formed in February, and is not connected to the academic council, nor are any of its members on the task force. The task force wasn’t introduced to the Academic Council until its meeting on March 2, when they were deciding on the pass/fail option for classes last spring semester. Yet, when it comes to the reopening plans for the fall semester, faculty members have been left out of the equation.

On June 10, just one day after President Nemec’s statement on reopening, Mulvey and the Fairfield University Chapter of the Faculty Welfare Committee/AAUP sent a letter regarding their concern for reopening plans, and the “failure to solicit appropriate and meaningful faculty involvement.” In this letter they called upon the administration to survey faculty members, both full-time and part-time, to understand their concerns and needs for the fall semester. Only within the last few weeks, with the creation of sub-committees under the larger cross-functional university task force” have professors been able to join these smaller sects of the larger decision making process. No longer is the academic council, which was created to be the decision making body of the university, in charge of any planning for “Stags Come Home.” In Mulvey’s letter, she and the AAUP confirm that the academic council and other faculty run boards (the Educational Planning Committee and the Educational Technology Committee) are ready to “grapple with the current pressures” and “to work as quickly as possible to find the best solutions to our educational problems.”

Then at a June 19 special summer meeting of the academic council, these issues were voiced by faculty members and academic council members to Provost Christine Siegel, and the Deans of Fairfield’s five schools. The draft minutes of the meeting opens with stating that the cats Sadie, of professor Shawn Rafalski from the math department, and Kitty, of Dean Richard Greenwald from the College of Arts and Sciences were present. Yet, as stated in the minutes, Siegel started the two hour meeting by focusing solely on the fall of 2020 reopening plans and the competing challenges faced between the COVID-19 virus and reopening campus. There’s also the complication of having to follow state guidelines for reopening as plans have to be approved by the state. Some of the state guidelines already include plans to have students tested upon arrival to campus and then again two weeks after. There would also be trained contact tracers on campus to trace and track those who have contracted the virus, or who have come into contact with someone infected. 

As the meeting went on, Dr. Mousumi Bhattacharya, professor of management, asked if there was a place information could be found regarding the reopening plans. Siegel then directed her to Fairfield University’s COVID-19 website, or “Stags Come Home.” 

In comparison to Quinnipiac University’s page for reopening, which answers 200 questions regarding the plans for the fall, Fairfield’s website simply has four bullet points reiterating President Nemec’s June 9 letter and 39 answered questions, nearly a fifth of Quinnipiac’s responses. Yet when Bhattacharya clarified and stated she was looking for a page just for the faculty’s use, Siegel stated that this could be possible, but it would have to be password protected and thus not forward-facing. 

Though this would provide faculty with a clearer understanding of the plans for the fall, students would still be out of the loop and seemingly the most at risk. As David Downie Ph.D., professor in the environmental sciences program, pointed out, what if students refuse to wear a mask? Siegal states that the professors have the right to require students to wear a mask in class. 

Students should not plan for another pass/fail semester, as this meeting also discussed grading for the fall semester. Siegel stated during the meeting that she had fears last spring that some students would exploit the pass/fail option for less than ideal purposes and then she later learned that students were doing just that. 

The meeting ends without any clear decisions made on grading, masks or development in plans. That will have to wait until the end of this month when Fairfield is set to release more of their plan. Yet, it’s important to note that in Fairfield’s mission statement, they state that the university “seeks to develop a greater sense of community within itself, a sense that all of its members belong to and are involved in the University.” Without providing all members of their community complete transparency in their plans for reopening and the decisions involved, questions are being raised on whether the “Stags Come Home” plan stays true to Fairfield’s mission. 

Molly Lamendola is a member of the Dean’s Student Advisory Board for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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