Professors voice concerns over in-person learning

By Sarah Siock and Shaun Chornobroff

Sarah Trocchio loves in-person teaching. It’s one of the reasons that when she was looking for a new college to be a professor, she chose to teach at Rider. The experience of teaching to students over Zoom during the 2020-21 school year was definitely not preferable to what Trocchio has experienced in the past.

While Trocchio loves the classroom environment and being in-person, she admits that she’s unsure of whether Rider should be resuming in-person classroom activities.

Is it safe to be back?

“As much as higher education reports to be progressive and forward-thinking and innovative, I think ultimately, there are a lot of ways that as an institution, colleges and universities kind of fall back on the traditional ways of doing things. … One of those that I think is really prominent is just this real concern with productivity over health and well-being at times,” Trocchio said.

Trocchio, a mother of a 3-year-old daughter and the wife of a cancer survivor, said that the issues at hand are complicated, but that some students and faculty weren’t taken into consideration when the university required faculty to teach in person this fall.

“I think that we need to be considerate and thinking about all of our vulnerable community members, and not just the faculty and staff that have children, but also [the students] that might live in multi-generational households that might live with people that are vaccinated, but are specially compromised or immunocompromised,” said Trocchio, who teaches in Rider’s department of sociology and criminology.

Michael Reca, Rider’s vice president for facilities and university operations sympathized with the concerns of professors, but believed Rider is doing everything it can to create a safe environment.

Reca explained that the university has added COVID-19 safety measures, including adding ultraviolet (UV) lights to buildings on campus that are designed to kill bacteria, extra disinfecting of all classrooms and new higher quality air filters among many other efforts.

“I don’t want to speak for anyone else, I just want to say that we’re doing all we can as fast as we can,” Reca said in an interview with The Rider News. “We went through all last year and with extra disinfecting and doing this outside air stuff, we’re adding this year into all those spaces. So it’s going to be helpful for any classroom, any gathering space, places like that.”

Vaccine requirements

Rider did implement new COVID-19 safety precautions this year such as a vaccine requirement, with religious and medical exemptions being considered, for students. Currently, 96% of students are vaccinated, according to the university.

For professors, Vice President for Human Resources Robert Stoto said the administration and the union jointly agreed on a process to solicit vaccine status from faculty and other bargaining unit members in Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as opposed to a mandate. Stoto said records indicate that 98% of full-time faculty are fully vaccinated.

Stoto wrote in an email to The Rider News, “We discussed various approaches to the faculty/staff vaccination issue, including, at one point, the possibility of a mandate. Ultimately, we mutually agreed on the approach that we are following, with the expectation that it would result in a vast majority of our workforce being vaccinated.”

AAUP Contract Administrator and sociology professor Jeffrey Halpern added that unvaccinated AAUP members must submit to weekly testing.

Halpern said in an email to The Rider News, “We agreed that the rule that applies to members of the bargaining unit is that they must vaccinate or be tested weekly…The issue that came up was how the vaccination status of faculty would be verified. In the end the university and the AAUP agreed that members of the bargaining unit could either let their chair see a vaccination document or they could verify their status through human resources who would deal with that information as private medical information protected by HIPPA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996].”

The decision to return

Political science professor and AAUP President Barbara Franz said that she was happy to be back to in-person teaching at Rider.

“It’s such a different job. It’s fabulous to be present in a classroom and talk to regular people and talk to students rather than stare at screens…I think we’re all happy…even the people that are really concerned about their health, they’re still thrilled to be back,” Franz said.

Franz also spoke about the many factors that influenced returning to in-person learning.

“Frankly, I think the union and the faculty is very well aware that this would have cost the university more students had we insisted on using remote modalities again… but I do know that some people are concerned, specifically older faculty and faculty with young children,” said Franz.

Franz said she felt the mask mandate the university implemented in August did help professors feel more comfortable about returning to the classroom. The mask mandate is required indoors for students and faculty regardless of the vaccination status.

Trocchio said she enjoys being back in person, but with the pandemic, she now has to be a “mask enforcer.”

Trocchio said, “I’ve seen lots of students just yesterday walking around with poorly fitting masks or very poor quality masks. There’s no masks in classrooms available and I’ve already given away some of my personal high-quality masks because I’ve seen kids in my class with their noses dangling out, which we know is not effective.”

Social distancing concerns

Trocchio teaches a class with over 20 students and said they are “literally elbow- to-elbow” in a windowless room. Franz too said students often sit close together in classrooms. She said she moved one of her classes out of a classroom in the Fine Arts building into a larger room elsewhere on campus because it was too crowded.

Franz said, “There were 25 seats in the class and I had 24 students. So that was very crowded and I asked for a reassignment.”

Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Planning and Secretary to the Board Debbie Stassola explained that Rider returning to in-person learning is a result of not having a requirement to social distance.
“We are not required to physically distance and because of that we can hold classes as we did prior to the pandemic,” Stassola said.

Student reaction
In her classes, Trocchio had open discussions with her students about how they feel about being back in school during a pandemic.

“I started my classes just asking students ‘How are you feeling? What are you thinking about this semester? You know, how have you changed? And what are your thoughts about coming into this environment, knowing that we still are very much in the middle of a pandemic,” Trocchio said. “I got a lot of concerns from students saying, ‘I’m so happy to be back, but I’m also more worried than I am happy that this going to fall apart.’”

Stassola responded to potential student concerns when she said, “All the more reason that every one of us who are a member of this community, students, faculty and staff should be knowledgeable about our guidelines related to COVID and should be following them… If students are concerned that something goes wrong, again, all the more reason we should be following the guidelines that are part of our Resolved and Ready plan.”

Trocchio said while her initial reaction to being back in the classroom was “joy,” she continues to have concerns.

“I have all these activities that I like to do as a very hands-on professor,” Trocchio said. “Is it ethical for me to have my students be working closely together at a table on a group project as they would have done a year-and-a-half ago? Or is it not? Right? These are all the extra considerations and concerns that have to be made that amount to additional work and labor on the part of faculty members.”

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