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Fall-Term Campus Health

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June 26, 2020

Making Online Teaching the Default This Fall

An earlier version of this statement incorrectly used ideas and language from a statement prepared by the Accessible Campus Action Alliance without proper attribution. This version is now corrected to include these citations. AAA regrets the error and is grateful to the Alliance for its leadership on this issue.

In planning for campus re-openings this Fall term, the American Anthropological Association calls on university and college administrators to consider the health and safety of all members of their communities, with special attention to vulnerable populations. In practice, this means "adopting explicit policies and procedures for safe, equitable, and inclusive teaching and learning" until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, and giving as much attention to protecting faculty/staff health and safety as for students.

As the Accessible Campus Action Alliance mentions in their statement (listed below), "Campus re-openings place issues of civil rights in the foreground, and in particular, issues of racial, gender, and disability equity. Given the disproportionate representation of COVID-19 infection and death in Black and brown communities, university policies and practices that emphasize in-person work and teaching run the risk of compounding the impact of racial inequity. These policies also risk endangering already-marginalized members of university communities, including staff and contingent faculty, who are less likely to have the option to take time away from work."

As a matter of equity and ethics, while we acknowledge the financial challenges colleges and universities face because of the pandemic, we encourage university administrators to keep the health and safety of marginalized people at the forefront of their decisions. Moreover, it is not just marginalized community members whose health and safety may be at risk. As CDC and other observers have noted, between 35-50% of COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic, which means that a return to campus without adequate testing and contact tracing in place will likely contribute to an infectious environment for faculty, staff, and students. Recent simulation modeling work suggests that even if the Fall term begins with no infections, on a large university campus, all susceptible community members would acquire COVID-19 by the end of the term.

We agree with the Accessible Campus Action Alliance that “making online teaching the default, rather than the exception, especially for larger classes, would reduce the uncertainties accompanying hybrid and in-person teaching and learning in the Fall. This more limited approach to campus re-opening would free on-campus space for students to maintain social distance if they do not have safe off-campus housing, and would still allow for a limited amount of teaching and learning that require on-campus work."

A continued commitment to academic excellence is essential, as is a focus on equity and inclusion in planning responses that support everyone in the campus community. The pandemic’s persistence creates opportunities for reimagining teaching and learning while reinforcing the importance of attending to the needs of vulnerable populations.

In circumstances where faculty, staff, and students must return to the campus this Fall, it is essential that plans be put in place now to test everyone before they return, and to test everyone at points throughout the Fall term. Core planning issues that must be tackled now involve whether institutions have enough health and safety materials to deal with infection prevention and control, whether they have enough money to deal with prevention and control requirements effectively, and whether the management and oversight capabilities are in place to make sure these resources are used properly. Proper support for online teaching efforts also is paramount.

Related information is available on epidemiological modeling for college and university campuses, American College Health Association guidelines on reopening, and a position statement from The Accessible Campus Action Alliance.

For everyone’s health and safety, AAA calls on colleges and universities to make online teaching the default rather than the exception. Campuses will be much healthier environments when administrators make sure that specific, well-funded, properly staffed testing, and contact tracing plans are in place for the Fall term.

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