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‘Ethically troubling.’ University Reopening Plans Put Professors, Students on Edge

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Few people are on campuses right now.

At many universities, employees will not be permitted to teach or work from home unlessdue to age or preexisting health conditionstheyre at risk of a severe outcome from COVID-19.

Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Come August, hundreds of universities across the United States are poised to reopen their campuses with a mix of online and in-person courses. Only a handful are aiming for an entirely online semester. But as the machinery of higher education cranks back into action, faculty, staff, and students are voicing concerns that, with COVID-19 cases surging in many parts of the country, employees are being forced to put their health—and the health of others—at unnecessary risk.

At many universities, employees will not be permitted to teach or work from home unless—due to age or preexisting health conditions—they're at risk of a severe outcome from COVID-19. The need to care for children and fear of infection aren't valid reasons to work remotely, according to some universities. "Employees who care for or live with [high-risk] individuals … should plan to return to campus as scheduled," the Georgia Institute of Technology's (Georgia Tech's) reopening guidelines stated as of 20 July.

Academics across the country are dismayed. At Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), for instance, faculty published an open letter decrying the "limited amount of input faculty, staff, and graduate employees have had on decisions related to our safety." At Georgia Tech, faculty released a similar letter saying the university's reopening procedures "do not follow science-based evidence"—and that "no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working … on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent."  

Yet financial constraints and political pressure are compelling many universities to reopen. Burdened by budget cuts, many have already laid off or furloughed employees. Not reopening their campuses could mean a further loss of revenue. At several universities, students have petitioned and even sued—unsuccessfully thus far—for tuition refunds for the spring semester because they're unable to access campus resources or receive in-person instruction. 


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