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With Fall Semester Approaching, University Faculty and Staff Worry About COVID-19 Outbreaks

Faculty and staff members at colleges and universities across North Texas are worried about potential COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses.EXPAND
Faculty and staff members at colleges and universities across North Texas are worried about potential COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses.
Michael Barera

When he's in the office, Aaron Anderson spends most of his day sitting at his desk, wearing his mask and trying to touch as few things as he can.

He worries about whether it's safe to lay out his lunch on his desk, so he doesn't eat anything from the time he leaves for work in the morning until he gets home in the evening. He tries to minimize trips to the bathroom because he knows that every surface he touches places him at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.

When he gets home in the evening, before he does anything else, he changes clothes and dumps the clothes he wore to work into the laundry.

Anderson works as an internship coordinator at the University of North Texas. Like many other university employees, he returned to work in person earlier this month. With the beginning of the fall semester just weeks away and new cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the university's plan to bring students back to campus in person has him worried.

"I just feel like it doesn't seem to match with what we're hearing in terms of how the virus is spreading," he said.

Officials at most colleges and universities in North Texas are planning to start the fall semester using some form of hybrid learning model. Students will take some classes on campus, others will be entirely online and others will be some mix of the two. But even as officials make plans for students to come back to campus, some are facing pushback from their own faculty and staff who worry about whether they're putting themselves and their students at risk.

At UNT, officials plan to limit in-person class sizes in order to allow for social distancing and require masks on campus. In an interview with the Observer last month, UNT President Neal Smatresk said the university would also set up its own testing program on campus. But Smatrestk acknowledged that even if the university does extensive testing, it can only do so much, especially when students and faculty come and go from campus all the time.

"We're not an island. We're not a cloistered monastery," he said. "I can test everybody, and that night they can go out to Fry Street, and who knows what we're coming back with?"

Anderson said that uncertainty is a big part of his concern about returning to campus. UNT isn't closed off from the rest of Denton or the Dallas-Fort Worth area more broadly. If an outbreak happens on campus, it isn't likely to stay there, he said.

"This isn't just a staff and faculty and student issue," Anderson said. "This is an entire city issue."

Anderson isn't alone in those concerns. At Texas Christian University, the Faculty Senate recently considered a vote of no confidence against TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini, the university's board of trustees and several other university administrators. Faculty members' complaints were wide-ranging, but they included the university's handling of the return to campus in the fall.

In a letter written after the Faculty Senate meeting, Sean Atkinson, a music theory professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate, called on officials to be more forthcoming with details about the university's testing and contact tracing protocols and "loudly broadcast" to TCU students and parents that the university's online course offerings would be on par with those found at other universities.

At Southern Methodist University, faculty members circulated an online petition arguing that faculty members should be able to choose between having class in person or online until the threat of the pandemic is gone.

Robert Howell, the chairman of SMU's philosophy department, started the petition. Howell told NBCDFW that the hybrid model the university is adopting doesn't work well for some classes. He argued that the university should trust its faculty members to decide what works best for their classes and their students.

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"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," Howell said. "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."

Aurelie Thiele, an SMU engineering professor and the chairwoman of the university's Faculty Senate, said she thinks the steps the university is taking to limit the spread of the virus are appropriate. Thiele was on campus last week and saw preparations both for the upcoming fall semester and the university's July term, which began last week. In classrooms, there were signs clearly marking where students could and couldn't sit, and bottles of hand sanitizer were everywhere, she said.

SMU faculty members are going through training on how to conduct online classes effectively, Thiele said. Even professors, like Thiele, who will be teaching in-person classes are required to go through the training so they can offer their classes online for any student who needs to self-isolate, she said. The university is also allowing any faculty member who is at high risk or lives with someone who is at high risk to request to teach online.

"I think they're doing everything they can to make it safe for both faculty and staff and students," she said.

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