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Credit: Isabel Liang

More than 225 instructors have signed a petition urging Penn to allow instructors to make their own decisions about whether to teach in person or virtually — but administrators insist students should remain in the classroom.

The petition expressed concern over rising COVID-19 infection rates linked to the more contagious Delta variant, inefficient air circulation in closed buildings, limited capacity to social distance in classrooms, and instructors who have unvaccinated family members or relatives with weakened immune systems. The petition also leveraged criticism at current Penn guidelines, which no longer mandate weekly testing and recommend non-medical grade masks instead of the more effective N95 respirators. The petition, which was delivered to Penn administrators on Aug. 22, is inclusive of tenured and non-tenured faculty, adjunct professors, lecturers, and graduate student instructors.

“We recognize that the circumstances around COVID-19 are evolving and that the administration has difficult decisions to make,” the petition reads. “And while we understand that our academic responsibilities are primarily to meet the educational needs of our students, we also recognize the necessity of protecting each other in dangerous times. Health and safety must come before all else.”

In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian on Sept. 8, Vice Provost for Faculty Laura Perna reiterated Penn's commitment to an in-person undergraduate education. Perna added that instructors may be permitted to shift to virtual instruction for a short duration of time, such as if the instructor or a significant number of students in the course need to quarantine. 

"Should the risk assessment associated with classroom teaching change, we would make accommodations accordingly and quickly communicate with faculty and other members of our community," Perna wrote.

The Faculty Senate released a memo on Aug. 27 addressing faculty concerns about in-person teaching, noting the safety of in-person teaching depends on vaccination, masking in the classroom, and regular testing and contract tracing.

According to the memo, faculty members who qualify for an exemption from in-person teaching may request a medical accommodation through the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs. Instructors who need an exemption for non-medical reasons, such as a family member at risk, can request an accommodation from a department chair or dean.

Shortly afterward, the Faculty Senate held a virtual seminar on Sept. 1 to address faculty attendees' pre-written questions they posed about in-person learning. Panelists at the seminar included Perna, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé, Vice President for Human Resources Jack Heuer, and Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate Services Anne Papageorge.

In response to questions asking why faculty aren't able to teach virtually, Perna said online classes cannot replace the in-person education the University promises undergraduate students, citing data indicating undergraduate students found remote learning difficult.

Perna also noted instructors of graduate students have greater flexibility in determining the format of their course, and that all instructors are given the option to teach in outdoor spaces.  

“At the undergraduate level, and as a residential in-person University, the expectation is that our students will receive and reap the benefits of an in-person pedagogical experience,” Perna said during the seminar.

During the seminar, instructors in the Zoom chat criticized administrators on the panel for failing to answer questions directly or adequately explain the motivation for current University COVID-19 guidelines.

Annenberg professor Barbie Zelizer, who teaches the virtual seminar COMM 739: Collective Memory and Journalism, said she signed the petition due to a growing sentiment among faculty across the University that their health and safety is not being prioritized by Penn.

“We are teaching in different kinds of classroom situations, and we are coming at these situations with different capabilities, different risks, different home environments, different health profiles,” Zelizer said. “To not be given a choice as to whether this feels like safe behavior or healthy behavior, that’s a real problem.”

Romance Languages professor Ericka Beckman, who signed the petition, similarly said that frustration with Penn stems from a lack of clear, direct communication on faculty concerns, including the policy on exemptions from in-person teaching. Instructors were not informed of the policy prior to the start of the semester, according to Beckman, and two weeks into the semester, instructors who have safety concerns have already been required to teach in the classroom. 

No Ivy League universities currently offer instructors the ability to teach remotely without a medical exemption. Penn instructors are not the only faculty concerned about in-person teaching — Princeton faculty members with young unvaccinated children previously expressed concern about in-person instruction. 

"I don't think anyone signing the petition is calling for an immediate cessation of in-person classes, that's not really the issue," Beckman said. "Under these conditions, we shouldn't be forced to take medical risks as a condition of employment." 

In an emailed statement to the DP, English graduate student Clinton Williamson said he views allowing instructors to make their own decisions about class format as a labor rights issue. Williamson also believes Penn has failed to account for the ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic.  

"For instance, as a graduate instructor who isn't recompensed at the level of professors, I take public transit to get to campus,” Williamson wrote. “So even as the classroom is masked, teaching in person adds the risk factor of a larger community contact that is managed by the city rather than the university (and masks are hardly omnipresent on SEPTA).”  

Biology professor Kimberly Gallagher teaches three courses this semester, which have maximum capacities varying from 15 to 130 students. Gallagher said she is comfortable teaching in-person with current mask mandates, but signed the petition because she believes other instructors should be able to make their own decisions, especially those who have young unvaccinated children, have weakened immune systems themselves, or have relatives with weakened immune systems.

For Gallagher, the inability for professors to switch to a virtual format also poses a risk for students.

“Honestly, if I was a student I would be concerned as well,” Gallagher said. “I’ve had students in my classes before who have Crohn’s disease, or sickle-cell anemia, or conditions that put them at risk, and as faculty members we’re being limited in our ability to help those students as well. By not being allowed virtual options, those students then have to attend class in person.”

Germanic Languages professor Kathryn Hellerstein teaches five seminar courses, each with a maximum capacity of 20 students. Hellerstein, who also signed the petition, said she was excited to return to in-person teaching, but is uncomfortable with the inability for social distancing and limited information from the University regarding on ventilation systems in specific classrooms.

The petition's demand echoes recent calls by Penn's chapter of the American Association of University Professors. AAUP-Penn is a membership-based national professional organization created by Penn faculty members earlier this spring that seeks to advance shared university governance and academic freedom, define professional values and standards, and promote economic security for university faculty members.

On Sunday, AAUP-Penn sent its members an email addressing exemptions from in-person teaching. AAUP-Penn wrote it has contacted the Provost and Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs to address problems with the process to request exemptions, which include privacy concerns from instructors and the denial of exemptions by deans "on grounds previously identified as eligible," such as unvaccinated children. 

On Aug. 17, AAUP-Penn had also published a statement calling on the University to endorse a policy to allow instructors to conduct "some or all" of their classes in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid mode.