Fall instruction guidelines leave faculty and students frustrated

Students sit on Skiles Walkway in between classes in order to study, relax, and eat lunch. This scene may look different this year as faculty and students prepare for school to start back amidst rising COVID-19 cases in Georgia. // Photo by Brenda Lin, Student Publications

Update: At 7:21 p.m. on July 6, Tech’s Coronavirus Task Force sent out an email with updated guidelines for the fall semester. Although the CDC guidelines no longer have an age minimum for at-risk individuals, “The USG will continue to use 65 as its measure for evaluating requests for alternate work arrangements. Individuals who are younger than 65 can provide documentation from a health care provider that their age is a determining factor for risk that should prevent them from working on campus as scheduled.” The email also contains a list of underlying medical conditions that could qualify individuals for alternative work arrangements. 

In addition to accommodation requests, USG has made it mandatory for “all faculty, staff, students, and visitors to wear an appropriate face covering while inside campus facilities/buildings where six feet social distancing may not always be possible.” Exceptions to this requirement are allowed for dorm rooms, suites, enclosed offices and study rooms or outdoors with social distancing.

On June 25, Tech sent out a PowerPoint presentation to department chairs detailing the guidelines and limitations for fall instruction planning. Prior to the release of these guidelines, faculty were told that they could submit requests for online accommodations, but based on further review, faculty’s approved requests face the potential of being rescinded between now and the fall. 

The Institute’s COVID-19 Task Force also sent out an email to the student body on July 2 at 3:28 p.m. detailing possible academic course formats, academic options for international students and residential options. 

According to both the faculty presentation and the email, classes will be planned according to the five following formats: residential spread, hybrid hands-on, hybrid touchpoints, hybrid split or remote learning. Residential spread entails in-person classes with social distancing measures implemented and “is the desired option” despite the use of masks deemed not mandatory per the University System of Georgia’s (USG) guidelines.

The hybrid models listed consist of a combination of in-person and remote instruction depending on the size and frequency of the class. The remote delivery mode is listed last on the presentation and will be online. 

Faculty and students alike have been informed that “Georgia Tech will prioritize certain classes for in-person delivery: lab classes, group project classes, senior design classes, small discussion classes, and classes that require interaction with physical projects and equipment in most or all sessions.”  

Dr. Alexandra Edwards, a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow going into her third year of teaching at Tech, commented: “I think the safest and most ethical delivery method for the majority of our fall courses is online. I recognize that some courses, especially those with lab or other hands-on work, might not necessarily be the ‘best’ when done online, but the dangers of holding the majority of courses in person while COVID surges in the state of Georgia are just too great.”

The presentation also states that “All classrooms equipped to capture classroom instruction with cameras and microphones,” but there is no indication whether faculty and students will be asked for their consent prior to recording the courses. This also poses the question of why the courses that will be equipped with said cameras and microphones to record instruction cannot be taught remotely.

Neither the presentation nor the email address how students with disabilities or students that are high risk will be accommodated in the event that they cannot safely attend a residential or hybrid-model class.

“I am scared out of my mind at the thought of returning to campus this fall. Everywhere that students are already on campuses (such as athletic programs currently running across the country), people are contracting COVID. It is simply not safe; it’s not safe for us, for students, for our families, or for the communities where we live, work, shop, and travel,” said Edwards.

In regards to faculty, the presentation lists that only those who fall under the “higher risk groups, as defined by the Georgia Department of Public Health, may request an accommodation,” which qualifies as “People, age 65 or over” or people of all ages with a variety of listed medical conditions “particularly if not well controlled.” 

There is no indication that faculty whom act as caretakers and are family members of high-risk individuals can request accommodations. Faculty who fall under the listed qualifications may submit an accommodation request until July 6 and then have the option to appeal the decision if a request does not get approved.

“Faculty have five (5) business days from the date of written notice to send an appeal to the Assistant Vice Provost for Advocacy and Conflict Resolution (AVP-ACR) ([email protected]). Appeals will be reviewed by a three-person committee led by the AVP-ACR, working in coordination with the Faculty Status and Grievance committee,” as stated in an email sent on July 2. Following the appeal submission, “The appeals committee will have five (5) business days to issue a decision.” 

Although it has not yet been announced which delivery modes classes will be conducted in, the Institute is “committed to publishing that list by July 20,” leaving instructors with only four weeks after a summer of uncertainty to structure their courses according to the assigned formats.

“[The online transition] was absurdly frustrating at first, given Tech’s communication disaster … I tried to make the rest of the semester as manageable as possible for my students. I cut back on the work they needed to do, and really just tried to give them a place to keep talking to each other and get some closure on our class. I thought that part was pretty successful,” said Edwards.

“We should have committed in early May to teaching the majority of fall classes online. That way, faculty and students could have had the summer to prepare. Online learning isn’t the same as face-to-face, and even just having time to get used to the idea of an online fall would have been really helpful. “

In addition to Dr. Edwards, multiple other academic faculty have taken to social media platforms like Twitter to express their concerns regarding the guidelines given to faculty and the lack of answers from Tech. On July 2 at 2:40 p.m., a “Statement of Academic Faculty of Georgia Tech on the COVID-19 Crisis and Fall 2020 Semester” was posted on Reddit expressing concerns about the fall opening of campus with academic integrity. 

“… re-opening plans at Georgia Tech have been shaped based on guidance from outside the Institute, and with limited input from the faculty who are being asked to carry out these plans. We are alarmed to see the Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia mandating procedures that do not follow science-based evidence, increase the health risks to faculty, students, and staff, and interfere with nimble decision-making necessary to prepare and respond to Covid-19 infection risk.” 

The statement offers revised guidelines and more suggestions to prepare for the fall, including empowering President Cabrera to act independently and ensure the safety of campus “informed by scientific evidence … Make remote delivery the default mode of instruction for Fall 2020 … Make on-campus experiences available for the limited number of students who need access to campus residences and on-campus laboratories or other specialized facilities … Make face masks required everywhere on campus,” and more.

As of 7:15 p.m. on July 5, the statement has over 856 signatures, representing academic faculty across all of Tech’s colleges.

The course delivery mode also comes after the housing cancellation deadline of June 30, requiring students to make the decision to cancel their on-campus housing or keep it prior to learning whether their courses would be delivered remotely or in person. Many are also still waiting to be assigned housing after being put on a waitlist as on-campus apartments filled up earlier, so even if students decided not to cancel their housing contracts, they are still left with the uncertainty of whether and where they will get housing.

Following the announcement of the class delivery modes, undergraduate students have the option to submit a deferral application by July 24, allowing them only four days to decide their plans for the semester and cancel or acquire housing. Given the June 30 deadline, they will still be penalized if they cancel on-campus housing. 

International students face an additional set of problems to wade through before they can return to campus — if at all. According to the CDC’s website and Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), there is a partial ban on travel coming into the U.S., restricting whether certain international students will be allowed to return. If international students can somehow return and intend on enrolling “for the fall semester on the Atlanta campus, [they] should plan for in-person, residential instruction,” per the task force’s email. 

However, international students are being asked “to arrive in Atlanta between July 24-26 and be required to follow quarantine guidelines … On-campus residents will be provided a place to quarantine and options for delivery of Dining Services during that time. Off-campus residents should plan to quarantine in their off-campus housing.” If housing is not found before August, asymptomatic students will have to quarantine at hotels. 

This given timeline for international students was released only three weeks before they are expected to arrive back in the U.S. and a mere four days after the release of course delivery modes, leaving international students in the dark about whether they need to be on campus for residential learning. The given time frame also operates under the assumption that flights will be available and affordable for July 24-26 for those students wishing to return. 

For international students who cannot secure a visa or travel back to the states but wish to remain enrolled for the fall semester, there is a possibility for remote learning but at the time it is unclear which courses will be offered. Students also have the option of studying at Tech’s two international campuses: Shenzhen and Lorraine. 

However, this is limited to “first-year undergraduate students who do not need a visa to enter China … [and] New or current MS ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering) students who do not need a visa to enter China.” For Tech’s Lorraine campus, “both the undergraduate and graduate programs will run with a condensed schedule. International graduate students who are unable to obtain a visa for the U.S. may be able to obtain a visa to study in France.” 

There are no details at the time for students who cannot travel to either international campus, given the multitude of health concerns surrounding travel during a COVID-19 era, nor is there information on how Tech will ensure the safety and health of students on these international campuses. There are also no other options at the time for students, international or domestic, who are considered high-risk of being infected with COVID-19 or do not feel comfortable returning to campus besides the deferral application.