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Faculty supports ‘choice’ on classes; UA group votes on fall resolution



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Faculty members at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville on Wednesday approved a resolution supporting “employee choice in continuing to work remotely” if face-to-face instruction resumes on campus this fall.

The resolution is not a policy or rule for the group to put in place, but meant to express “what our sentiment is,” Fran Hagstrom, chairperson of the UA faculty senate, said during the group’s meeting Wednesday.

No decision has been made about reopening the state’s largest campus. Individual classes are under study to see how they might be adjusted in response to the threat posed by the covid-19 illness, a UA official told faculty Wednesday.

The resolution approved Wednesday states that UA’s faculty senate “supports employee choice in continuing to work remotely — be they faculty or staff — out of overwhelming concern for their personal well-being, should university administrators decide to resume face-to-face instruction in the Fall 2020 semester.”

It goes on to state that it is “further resolved” that the university “shall equip those employees with the material resources and training to effectively perform their job duties remotely.”

More than 30 faculty senate members voted to approve the resolution and none opposed it during a videoconference meeting for the group.

Asked by the Democrat-Gazette to respond to the resolution, UA spokesman Mark Rushing in a prepared statement referred to ongoing planning and said “all recommendations from the Faculty Senate” will be considered.

“There’s no question that we want to be open and have students on campus this fall. If we’re able to do that as we hope, it will be necessary for faculty and staff to begin returning to campus to prepare,” Rushing said.

A planning team is “actively working on possible scenarios to facilitate a return to campus while incorporating social distancing and other guidelines designed to keep our community safe,” Rushing said.

He continued: “All recommendations from the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and student governance groups are welcome and will be considered as we work through this situation together. We are also closely monitoring planning and discussions regarding best practices taking place across the higher education community and beyond.”

Bret Schulte, an associate professor in UA’s journalism school, said the resolution “came out of a number of conversations we had with faculty and staff, particularly those who felt very vulnerable to coronavirus as the university is considering opening in the fall.”

Older adults and those with severe underlying conditions including diabetes are more at risk for serious complications from covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Faculty members as a group are older than other workforce populations, according to a January report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

The report, based on survey data collected by the association, found that the median age for tenure-track faculty members is 49 years old and that there are “significantly more faculty aged 55 or older compared to the general workforce.”

The coronavirus spreads from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets emitted by an infected person. These droplets can come from coughing, sneezing or talking, and spread is more likely when people are within about 6 feet of one another, according to the CDC. Information from the current pandemic suggests the virus causing covid-19 is “spreading more efficiently than influenza,” according to the CDC.

Schulte said the resolution was written with all faculty and staff members in mind, not solely those considered most vulnerable to serious complications. The CDC says everyone is at risk of getting the infection.

“It should apply to anybody who feels safer working remotely. We have proven now as a campus that we can do that,” Schulte said.

UA, like other colleges and universities, has shifted to online-only classes for the spring semester and will continue remote instruction through Aug. 3.

Jim Coleman, UA’s provost, spoke during the meeting to faculty members about the campus approach to reopening.

“The governor has started to open things up a bit,” Coleman said, referring to Wednesday’s announcement by Gov. Asa Hutchinson about the limited reopening of dine-in restaurants starting May 11 and similar decisions.

“As a campus, we’re going to try not to be any more restrictive than where the governor and the state health officials are. But we don’t know exactly how to translate that,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the University of Arkansas board of trustees may meet Monday and that “there may be some guidelines that the board may approve in a resolution regarding an intention to have some kind of opening in the fall.”

He likened this possibility to statements already issued by some other large public universities, referring to the University of Missouri and the University of Oklahoma, who have stated an intent to open “but don’t know exactly what that will look like,” Coleman said.

“It’s a real concern about enrollment at the moment if we don’t announce intentions soon, but we still have a lot of planning to do,” Coleman said.

That planning includes thinking about opening when social distancing is necessary and when “we will have faculty members that will not feel, healthwise, ready to come back to campus,” Coleman said. He gave his report before Schulte presented the remote work resolution.

Coleman said that while enrollment remains a “big question, at the moment it’s looking optimistic based on housing contracts and based on orientation sign-ups and based on priority registration.” He said enrollment looks “at least level,” but there is a fear of summer “melt” reducing those numbers, in part because of financial concerns students and families may be experiencing.

Terry Martin, UA’s senior vice provost for academic affairs, said the university is basically considering three scenarios for fall academics: face-to-face classes; a continuation of online-only courses; and coming back “in a social distancing manner.”

More than 4,200 classroom courses scheduled for fall are being looked at by administrators with UA colleges and departments to determine “what would you do if you had to come back, do you need additional sections, would you put it online?”

The work will continue into the next two to three weeks to see “whether we need some [classes] at night, whether we need to go to using all of our special purpose rooms, all of our conference rooms, what does it look like,” Martin said, adding, “we’re looking at it as an option.”

Martin also said it’s “on the board” to consider an alteration to the fall semester calendar, such as returning to campus later than the typical August start date for classes. Martin said that while the academic calendar has been discussed, much of the focus for those studying academic scenarios thus far has been on how to possibly incorporate social distancing.

Different UA planning groups are looking at other aspects of reopening, Coleman and Martin said.

Spokesman Rushing said the “university hopes to be in position to finalize plans June 1, but that date could be pushed a bit if we need more time to evaluate our readiness to return safely.”