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Tracy Sweet got a wake-up call on Aug. 22.
The University of Maryland professor was about a week away from returning to an in-person classroom for the first time in more than a year when two of her children were exposed to the coronavirus at an outdoor birthday party.
Sweet’s three kids are too young to be vaccinated, adding to her uneasiness about returning to teach in person.
“It’s … the apprehension of knowing that this is going to be kind of what the whole semester is like,” said Sweet, an associate professor in the education college.
With in-person classes underway for the fall semester, professors have mixed feelings about returning to the classroom.
For some, it’s an opportunity to move forward and get back to the in-person interaction that has been lost for the past year. For others, it’s nerve-wracking — both to think about the potential health risks and the adjustment to in-person school. And for some, it’s a combination of both.
Anne Simon, a cell biology and molecular genetics professor, is part of the third category.
Simon, who will be teaching an in-person class in the spring semester, knows the risks firsthand — she contracted the virus in June and was hospitalized for a week, and she has a family member still dealing with the long-term effects of the disease.
To Simon, professors should make it clear to students that they should stay home when sick. She also thinks professors should arrange for substitutes to take over their classes if they need to quarantine.
Additionally, students themselves should evaluate the health risks of their actions, such as going in large groups to restaurants and bars.
“I think students have to ask themselves, ‘Is it worth it?'” Simon said.
However, Simon thinks returning to some semblance of normality is inevitable and needed, albeit risky.
“We really have two choices for the next 10 years,” she said. “One is to continue to stay home and not interact and not have school and not have anything like this, or to get back into society and to have this be just something that we have to deal with.”
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Professors are taking varied approaches on how to deal with the situation.
Robert Chiles, a senior lecturer in the history department, knows the importance of flexibility. His daughter was recently vaccinated, but his anxiety when the coronavirus vaccine was not yet approved for her age group — and his observations throughout the entire pandemic — showed him that it’s important to “meet [people] where they are.”
He’s offering livestreamed versions of his lectures for students who are quarantining or students who do not feel comfortable returning to 150-person lectures in person.
He said his policy so far has worked.
“The students are so great. They’re already responsive. I’m already connecting with them again just like the good old days,” Chiles said.
Chiles is also prioritizing safety in the classroom. According to a university policy, instructors can take their masks off while lecturing as long as they maintain the appropriate distance from their students.
Eager to take advantage of this policy, Chiles purchased two yard sticks and taped them together to ensure that he is always six feet away from his students, he said.
The policy is not popular with all professors.
Erica Smith, an assistant clinical professor for the University Honors program and a lecturer in the public policy school, said she will not be taking her mask off in the classroom.
“I feel like the students are not allowed to remove their masks, so why should I?” Smith said.
She has worn an N-95 mask to teach and invested in a microphone to make sure students can hear her clearly. Whenever possible, she also offers her students options to do small group work outdoors or in the hallway, she said.
All things considered, Smith said she thinks the university’s policies are strong, and she hopes community members will do their part to make the semester a success.
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Additionally, not all professors are immediately returning to in-person classes.
For Marybeth Shea, a professional writing principal lecturer in the English department, online teaching isn’t new. Since professional writing classes are required for all students, the department offers a variety of class options, including online instruction, Shea said.
Shea is continuing to teach entirely online this semester. She hopes that going forward, students’ needs can be met in the best way possible, whether that’s with online teaching, a safe return to in-person instruction or a combination.
“I kind of hope that the vaccine situation [is looking good] and the circulation of the virus in our area will be low enough that hybrid looks good,” Shea said. “It would reserve some of the flexibility that you can do in digital life, but it would also fit that campus spirit of [wanting] to learn in a community together face to face.”
For Simon, the key as professors and students move forward is cooperation from students and support from professors. With those, she hopes the semester will be successful.
“I hope the students are excited about coming back, and I know that the professors are excited about having the students come back,” she said. “We want to do what we always do, which is offer a great education to students.”