Some faculty with COVID-19-related health concerns criticize in-person teaching mandate, accommodations policy
In a survey of hundreds of faculty, one-third said they wanted to have the option to teach remotely due to health concerns.
While many at Yale have gratefully returned to in-person instruction, not everyone is so happy.
In a Faculty of Arts and Sciences survey with 551 faculty respondents this month, nearly one-third said they would rather not teach in person, with some expressing concern over what they characterized as a lack of accommodations for faculty who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Currently, if an instructor feels their health circumstances warrant additional accommodations for in-person teaching, that instructor must submit an application and medical documentation to the Office of Institutional Equity and Accessibility. The office then works with the instructor’s supervisor to determine whether an accommodation is appropriate. In interviews with the News, four senior faculty members criticized OIEA for a lack of support in receiving permission to teach classes online due to health concerns regarding in-person teaching. While some expressed frustration over rejected applications, others who were granted permission to teach virtually were also critical of the policy as a whole and called for greater transparency.
Sterling Professor of American studies and history Matthew Jacobson received an accommodation but expressed his discontent with the process and requirements for receiving an exemption to teach online.
“I am indeed quite up in arms about the policy overall,” Jacobson said. “There are many people with legitimate safety concerns and worries who seem not to be eligible for the exemption. My main concern is that the threshold for exemption from in-person teaching is quite high, and the University’s accepted reasons for exemption are quite narrow.”
Yale spokesperson Karen Peart wrote to the News that there have been no documented cases of COVID-19 transmission in a classroom of masked occupants, adding that “the university has taken extensive health and safety measures to help keep the community healthy.”
Stephanie Spangler, University COVID-19 Coordinator, Elizabeth Conklin, associate vice president for institutional equity, accessibility and belonging within the OIEA, and Kathryn Lofton, FAS dean of humanities, all declined multiple requests to comment.
The FAS survey, conducted from Aug. 30 to Sept. 3 and obtained by the News upon its Sept. 20 release to the FAS, shows that 33 percent of faculty respondents would prefer to teach entirely remotely, while a further 16 percent would prefer to teach in a hybrid fashion of in-person and virtual instruction. Moreover, according to the survey, only 20 percent of faculty did not have any medical concerns about teaching in person, while 56 percent of respondents responded that they are “somewhat” to “extremely” concerned.
“We will continue to advocate for flexibility for faculty teaching modes,” read a Monday email from Valerie Horsley, the FAS Senate chair, to the FAS. “The administration has communicated that the in-person teaching policy is an ideal and that the University empowers you to run the classroom to enhance the pedagogy and education of your students with the understanding that occasional remote instruction is an inevitable component of the diversity of teaching, even in non-COVID times.”
John Bargh, professor of psychology and cognitive science and of management, said that the current situation has not been managed well. He said that the add/drop period has resulted in overcrowded classrooms, an inability to social distance and close contact with professors, which is especially severe in classes lacking ventilation.
Peart explained that Yale Facilities Operations and Environmental Health and Safety have “carefully evaluated the ventilation systems in all occupied buildings — including all classroom spaces.” She added that all “necessary modifications” have been made, including “upgraded filtration, extended run times of air systems, and modifications to air delivery systems to allow high levels of outdoor air supply to serve spaces and optimize work environments.” Additionally, for spaces without mechanical ventilation and with no windows, ventilation has been “enhanced, or EHS has recommended limited occupancy in these areas.”
Acting on his concerns, Bargh applied to teach online for this semester, but his request was denied. Bargh, who has had health problems related to his respiratory system for the last four years, said his application was denied without a provided “reason or explanation.”
Horsley’s Monday email to faculty stated that “we are advocating for an improved accommodation process for future terms, if needed, as well as an appeal process for faculty that feel that the University has not properly realized their concerns with teaching in person.”
Katie Trumpener, Emily Sanford professor of comparative literature and professor of English, is herself immunocompromised and was able to secure permission to teach online. Still, she expressed concern for the rest of the community.
“Would I have liked all faculty to have much more choice and much more say?” Trumpener wrote in an email to the News. “Of course! I would also have liked to see all students given the option to continue their studies from off-campus, with on-line courses; there’s still very much a pandemic on.”
According to the University’s workplace guidance FAQ page, the OEIA will work with the appropriate supervisor to determine if a workplace accommodation — such as remote work or a larger classroom — is possible if it determines that the instructor’s medical condition counts as a disability. Peart explained that the ultimate decision to approve remote work for faculty members rests with the dean, and that the OIEA may meet with the dean or designate to explore other options — including classroom reassignment, larger classrooms or better ventilated spaces — for accommodations, depending on the situation.
Peart wrote that “the ADA does not require accommodation that would fundamentally alter the faculty member’s role or place an undue burden on the school.”
Still, Jacobson said he had raised his concerns with the administration, but that they had “not [been] adequately responded to.”
“The administration talks a lot about ‘community,’ but the in-person teaching mandate is coercive, whether or not one accepts the University’s public health claims,” Jacobson said.
Lisa Pfefferle, the C. Baldwin Sawyer professor of chemical and environmental engineering, wrote in an email to the News that “many of us older faculty members who have many medical conditions are very scared about Yale’s in person classes for all.”
Pfefferle, who is teaching online for two to four weeks, said her concerns also took into account the potential limited efficacy of the vaccine for older people. She cited an Aug. 18 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report which suggests that vaccine effectiveness to the Delta variant among nursing home residents was as low as 53 percent.
“I am concerned that our cohort may see deaths and certainly severe illness,” Prefferle said.
There are 22 members of the FAS Senate.
Madison Hahamy contributed reporting.