Southern Methodist University professors are petitioning their administration to allow them ‘the choice’ of returning to classes in-person or online out of fear over COVID-19.
SMU has announced it plans to resume in-person classes in August using a hybrid model of ‘in-person instruction with online capabilities,’ according to a university spokesperson.
But there is concern among some faculty and staff members as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Dallas County.
The online petition states SMU faculty and staff should have a choice regarding in-person classes and work activities until the pandemic is ‘no longer a significant threat.’
Robert Howell is a professor and the chair of SMU’s philosophy department and started the petition.
“There’s a whole lot of harm that can come from contracting this virus even if you’re not high risk and there are people with families at home,” said Howell. “They’d be afraid to spread it as well and we feel like it should be up to the people, the staff and the professors, to decide whether or not they want to put themselves in that risk or not.”
Howell says the hybrid model being promoted would mean professors would be teaching a class with some students in-person and others following along online.
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“There’s some classes where that’s not going to be appropriate, whether or not the professor is high risk,” he said.
“More remote or fully online experience is something that can actually design and actually control, better than the mixed experience. And as a result, they feel a better success in the class. Obviously, the best thing would be for us all to be in-person and be back where we want to be, which is in the classroom. But there’s a lot of people who feel like the half-and-half model just doesn’t make sense for the way they teach.”
The petition states SMU has not been transparent enough in its plans to re-open campus and has not included enough input from faculty members, including those without tenure who may fear speaking out publicly.
Many are also concerned about a lack of plans for frequent and widespread testing for COVID-19.
Howell says the new teaching model would conflict with their teaching methods.
“We have to trust the people who have been teaching the classes and trust the people who actually are in front of students to make the best [decisions] for their classes and if we don’t trust the professors to do that then I don’t think we’re putting the authority in the right hands,” he said.
SMU released the following statement to NBC 5 regarding the petition:
"Through many hours of research and planning that included faculty and staff representatives from throughout the university, SMU has prepared a road map for the fall semester that provides multiple options to teach, work and study in a healthy manner. We conducted a survey of our faculty to determine those who require accommodations under current CDC guidelines and are in the process of working through those adjustments with individual faculty members."
Our students have told us they highly value the personal interaction they get with our excellent faculty and with fellow students as part of their on-campus SMU education. The fall semester hybrid model of in-person instruction with online capabilities, employee accommodations that follow CDC guidelines, and extensive work to create a healthy campus are all efforts to balance and meet the needs of students, faculty and staff.
Howell, who has been employed at SMU for about 18 years, says if the petition does not lead to change, it will at least allow the administration to know how they feel.
So far, the petition has approximately 650 signatures, he said.