Auburn University is planning to offer most of its classes during the spring 2021 semester in person, according to an email sent to students from Provost Bill Hardgrave.
“Given the success of the fall semester, thanks to you and the entire campus community, we are confident that with your continued adherence to safety protocols that Auburn can safely hold a spring 2021 semester that supports in-person teaching as our primary instructional delivery method,” Hardgrave said.
In an email obtained by The Plainsman that was sent to faculty last month, Hardgrave said that any faculty members wishing to offer their classes remotely will have to receive approval from the dean of their college.
“Any exceptions to in-person instruction (specifically courses where less than half of the contact hours are delivered in person) must be approved by the dean of your college,” Hardgrave said.
Nicholas Giordano, dean of the college of sciences and mathematics, said that by shifting much of the decision making to a college level, the University is trying to meet the specific needs of each college.
“It might seem preferable to be able to apply the same criteria and the same decision process to every single case, every single course in the University, but they’re all different,” Giordano said. “Our goal is to get every course that we can in a face-to-face mode, but we want to do it subject to the safety of everybody, the safety of the faculty, the safety of the students and all that.”
Because of Hardgrave’s announcement, deans like Giordano or Joseph Aistrup, dean of the college of liberal arts, will likely play a much bigger role this spring in determining how many classes are offered in face-to-face formats. With that in mind, both men talked about the factors they have been — and will be — considering in regards to in-person instruction.
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“The first thing driving this is that we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the University has done a number of different things — facemasks, requiring social distancing in classes, making sure that there’s proper sanitation in every classroom,” Aistrup said. “We have a sense that as long as everybody’s wearing their face mask and doing social distancing, that, by and large, that provides a safe environment. Or let’s put it this way, as safe as possible environment in light of the pandemic.”
Over the last three weeks, Auburn University has reported adding around 20 cases per week, much lower than the 500 cases per week it was seeing in August. Giordano said these low numbers show the many of the measures implemented by the University have been effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
“We’re going to have more face-to-face classes because people know that these measures are working,” Giordano said. “Again, I’m a physicist. I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not an M.D., but I think that’s gonna be the biggest factor.”
Despite these low numbers, reporting by The Plainsman earlier this semester found that many students and faculty members have chosen to limit their time on campus this semester for a variety of reasons. Both deans confirmed this idea.
“Our impression from the fall semester is that a lot of students would rather take a course online,” Giordano said. “Now, maybe they want to take the class in their pajamas, I don’t know. But maybe, they’re just uncomfortable [for] health [reasons]; I think it’s probably that, and we want to respect that.”
Aistrup reiterated this point and went further.
“Faculty members and students themselves don’t always feel comfortable, even with all those safety natures,” he said. “Our parents, though, have spoken very loudly. And they spoke very loudly, just recently, by sending numerous emails and numerous other types of communication telling Auburn University that they expect classes to be more face-to-face than online.”
Many parents, according to Aistrup, were upset by the University’s decision this fall to offer most of its classes via synchronous online instruction.
“Some parents weren’t very happy with that decision,” Aistrup said. “And so, this semester, I think we hear with the provost and the president of this University, hearing the voices of our parents and also some of our students that they would like to see a lot more face-to-face interaction.”
A closer reading of Hardgrave’s announcement to students shows how precise his language is about the University’s plans for the spring. Hardgrave didn’t say that most classes will be delivered in person. He said most classes “will be offered in person.”
“The important thing here, I think, is for students to have the opportunity to come to class if they want,” Aistrup said. “The University is providing the opportunity for students to come, and that’s what parents were really wanting: simply for their child, if they want to go to the class [to] have that opportunity.”
So, while Hardgrave’s announcement seems to be shifting much of the decision making about modality in the spring to college deans, both Aistrup and Giordano indicated that students will still have a say in whether or not they choose to go to class.
“If student behavior doesn’t change, that’s fine,” Aistrup said. “But then, when mom and dad call up, we can say, ‘Well they certainly have the option to go to class; they just chose not to.’”
Though many students are barely through with this semester’s midterms, these questions about the spring had to be answered so that students would know the modality of their classes before registration, which will begin next month.
“You will know when you register how each course section will be delivered,” Hardgrave said.
Aistrup said this will likely be the biggest difference between the fall and spring semesters.
“Whatever way we said we were going to deliver a class, we have an obligation to deliver it in that way,” Aistrup said. “And students have a right to choose that modality based upon what we advertise that we say we’re going to do. And that will be the difference between this past semester and this next is, we have to continue to do what we told students we’re going to do.”
In short, many administrators are trying to prevent faculty members shifting from one mode of instruction to another during the semester.
“I think across the University, we’re emphasizing that we can’t pivot out of our classroom environments that we have advertised we are providing,” Aistrup said. “When a faculty member is in a classroom environment, it doesn’t matter if there’s 15 people that are there or two people there or no people there; [faculty members] need to be in that classroom environment in case even one student shows up.”
If the majority of students decide to attend class in person this spring, there still could be concerns about how they will maintain social distancing. The safety measures that the University has implemented for the current fall semester will be continued into the spring. According to the email, these will include “completing daily health checks, reducing classroom capacities, wearing face coverings and practicing physical distancing, among others.”
The issue for some colleges is that just because the University is requiring social distancing doesn’t mean the classrooms got any larger or more numerous. This problem is especially a focal point for Giordano since many COSAM classes have over 300 students in addition to required lab assignments.
“We’re going to do some labs online; there’s no question about it because we don’t have space in the labs to keep students apart as much as we’d like,” Giordano said.
As for the large classes, Giordano said that most, if not all, of the entry classes will be offered both in person and online.
Even this fall, Giordano said his college has turned to more creative alternatives to indoor classrooms in order to get students and faculty time to meet face-to-face. For instance, some faculty members have used the covered pavilion at the Donald E. Davis Arboretum for classes.
“We’ve added a big screen there and a projection system,” Giordano said. “And students, if the weather’s nice, they can sit outside.”
Giordano said he recognized the importance of this face-to-face interaction last spring when it was suddenly taken away by the pandemic.
“In the spring, we had about a month and half, or maybe two months, of regular interaction between faculty and students,” he said. “And then suddenly, we pivoted, and I think looking back on it, I didn’t realize how important [that] first month and a half was because you got to know your students a little bit.”
As of publication, no major changes have been to the schedule for the spring semester. It is still set to being on Jan. 6, and registration for that semester will start on Nov. 11.
In September, the University of Alabama announced that they would not be having a spring break this academic year, citing the need to “mitigate risks associated with travel,” but Auburn has not yet released a final decision.
“Additional details regarding the spring calendar, including spring break, will be announced no later than Nov. 24,” Hardgrave said.
With the advent of winter looming in a couple of months and the number of COVID-19 cases rising again across the country, there are still serious questions about how many students will be on campus this spring. There are also questions about how much of an impact a return to largely in-person instruction will have on the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
Ever the scientist, Giordano said that even though some data has been collected, it will be impossible to know exactly what is going to happen until it happens.
“we’ve been teaching some classes face-to-face,” he said. “But we haven’t done the full experiment yet.”
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