Professors speak out about teaching on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic

Professors are conflicted about if teaching on campus is safe for them and their families.

Rayna Cohen, Contributing Writer

Halfway through the semester at Florida Atlantic University, the current number of Delta variant cases in Palm Beach County is making professors question being back in the classroom. 

According to the New York Times, an average of 341 cases were reported each day in Palm Beach County, and so far, August 2021 is the month with the most reported cases. The CDC recommends that in places with substantial or high transmission individuals should wear masks indoors in public areas.  

But there is no mask or vaccine mandate at FAU according to the university’s website. Students, faculty, and staff are only “expected” to wear masks indoors, and are “strongly encouraged” to get the vaccine. According to FAU’s website, “employees may ask students and colleagues if they would be willing to wear a face covering, but face coverings may not be mandated or required.”

This fall, the university started an incentive program in which students, faculty, and staff receive a $150 VISA gift card after becoming fully vaccinated. Some professors applaud this move, but others believe more should be done. 

Still, that’s not enough for some faculty who don’t think teaching should occur on campus during the pandemic. 

“I feel like it’s not something we should be doing, generally speaking,” said Aaron Veenstra, a political communication professor.

Veenstra said he is glad the school is doing the incentive program, “but we should’ve been doing more with vaccination earlier, and we should be doing more with it now.”

He said the administration is choosing to be unsafe by not mandating masks and vaccines.

“That isn’t a choice that they had to make,” Veenstra said.

While some professors do not live with anyone at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, others must worry about the risks it poses not only to themselves but to their loved ones.

“My spouse is suffering from liver disease, and we don’t know, the doctors haven’t done all the tests yet but am I going to kill my spouse if I bring home [the virus]?” Micheline Hilpert, an anthropology professor, said.

However, after teaching classes online for the last year and a half, some professors are glad to be back on campus, even if it poses risks.

“Even if I get ill, I still would rather do that and teach in person than actually not get ill and do another semester online,” said Chris Robé, a film professor.

Veenstra said he believes that the administration needs to do more in terms of mandating masks, instead of it being up to individual students. 

“This is something that should be coming from the university,” Veenstra said.  

Veenstra said that the percentage of mask-wearing differs in each of his classes.

“One class is probably like 50% to 60%, the other one’s probably 80% that typically wear them every time,” he said. 

However, he said if the student community starts protesting it might catch the attention of the administration because “administrators are used to dismissing faculty [but] you can’t hire more students.”

Professors are also doing their part to ensure that students are wearing masks. As part of the United Faculty of Florida union, Robé passes out masks to students on the breezeway, and he hands out “about 600-700 an hour.”

The mask distribution is also happening in individual classrooms. Veenstra said that he has a box of blue surgical masks in class every day and is reminding people that don’t have a mask to get one. He added that a few students that were not wearing a mask beforehand would come up and take one.

According to university business, colleges in other states have mask mandates in place, with Florida public schools being the exception. 

“We should have a mask mandate on campus but given our state politics that’s not going to happen,” said Veenstra.

With the pandemic still impacting the FAU community, there are some who believe that there needs to be actions taken to lessen its effects.

“The thing that I really would encourage everyone within our community to do is to understand that we’re not going to get out of it by just hoping it’s done,” Veenstra said. “We’re going to get out of it by making collective decisions that will get us out of it.” 

Rayna Cohen is a contributing writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected]