Delta variant has college professors 'freaking out' about fall 2021 semester

·10 min read

For Elizabeth Kostal, the past 18 months have been “utterly terrifying.”

The nursing and health sciences professor at South University in Virginia Beach has such severe heart and lung issues, she has a pacemaker. She says she’s “fought my entire life just to stay alive and maintain my health.” When the coronavirus started circulating the globe in early 2020, Kostal feared for her future.

COVID-19 forced the education world to pivot, moving classes online and shuttering campuses. Kostal breathed a sigh of relief. But now, as most colleges plan not just a return to campus but a required return for faculty and staff, Kostol is worried again.

She’s got plenty of company. Most college employees will not go to the lengths Kostal is going. In late July, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint after her request to continue remote work was denied, which she and her attorney say is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; a lawsuit against the school could follow. Even if they aren’t prepared to take legal action, universities' staff and faculty are concerned about returning to on-campus work, particularly as the delta variant causes a surge in cases nationwide.

At least 675 colleges require students or staff to be vaccinated, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, but many do not. Mask mandates are scattered, and sometimes not enforced, leading to an uptick in anxiety for thousands of faculty members in America’s higher education system.

Many employees ask universities to require vaccines or let them work from home – and haven't heard much in response. Colleges push for workers to re-create the residential, on-campus experience students are used to.

Kelly Benjamin, a spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors, says AAUP hears from members who are worried – and he can relate to the stress.

“We’re all freaking out,” he says.

Cathy Glasson, SEIU Local 199 president, protests in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic Aug. 19, 2020, on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. The Service Employees International Union represents nurses and health care workers at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.  Faculty and staff were worried about contracting COVID-19 before they were vaccinated. This year, as the delta variant rages and many colleges return to normal, they're concerned again.
Cathy Glasson, SEIU Local 199 president, protests in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic Aug. 19, 2020, on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. The Service Employees International Union represents nurses and health care workers at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Faculty and staff were worried about contracting COVID-19 before they were vaccinated. This year, as the delta variant rages and many colleges return to normal, they're concerned again.

Impossible choice between 'physical and financial health'

Kostal’s situation is somewhat unique. Because of severe reactions to past vaccines, including inflammation of the heart, her doctors recommended she not get a COVID-19 vaccine. Her husband and 12-year old daughter have been vaccinated, but her 8-year-old, who’s twice contracted pneumonia, is not eligible.

College campuses drove major COVID-19 outbreaks. Will they require the vaccine?

In the spring, Kostal says, she was forced back to campus to continue remote learning from her office, putting herself at risk for no discernible benefit to her pre-nursing students taking the class online. By leaving her home and driving to campus – while double-masking and wearing gloves – Kostal essentially just changed her Zoom background.

“Students were logging in from wherever, their kitchen table, their couch, their bedroom,” she says. Why, she wondered, couldn’t she do the same?

South University does not require students or staff to be vaccinated. The school encourages masks, especially for unvaccinated people, but “it’s all on the honor system,” Kostal says, which worries her.

Kostal and her attorneys estimate the EEOC complaint process, which is the precursor to filing a lawsuit, could take a few months. Kostal will continue to teach an online class from her office, despite her concerns and objections. She’s not in a financial position to quit.

As the start of the term gets closer, Kostal says she’s heard from numerous colleagues, many of whom thanked her for taking a stand, telling her they fear retaliation if they voice their fears.

“It’s an incredulous position for anyone to be placed in by their employer, to have to pick between their physical and financial health,” she says.

South University did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At many colleges and universities, the plan is to go back to business as usual this fall – meeting in person, sometimes without mask mandates or social distancing.
At many colleges and universities, the plan is to go back to business as usual this fall – meeting in person, sometimes without mask mandates or social distancing.

No vaccine or mask mandate

From her home in West Virginia, Kristin Moilanen has watched COVID-19 cases climb in her community and state with a creeping sense of dread. She lives close to a trauma center, and during the height of the pandemic, the thrum of helicopters and sirens of racing ambulances became a daily soundtrack.

The child development professor at West Virginia University does not envy any of the decision-makers at her college – but she wishes the guidelines were more clear, echoing concerns from faculty members across the country.

“We have lots of unknowns,” Moilanen says. “We haven’t heard what the contingency plans are, and on our ‘Return to Campus’ website, I can never find the answers I need. What if my kids have to quarantine ’cause they were exposed at school? I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do in that situation.”

Moilanen and her husband are vaccinated, and their children, ages 6 and 11, “can’t wait to get it.” WVU does not require it, which surprised Moilanen.

In May, the university announced threshold requirements that, when hit, would allow the school to reduce its COVID-19 protocols, including opening facilities such as the rec center if vaccinations hit 50%.

In mid-June, when COVID-19 cases were down across the country, the university changed course and said it would fully reopen. “The percentage milestones ... previously announced that relate to on-campus activities are no longer relevant,” WVU said.

Moilanen is scheduled to teach one in-person class of about 40 students this fall. She’s not sure what the classroom layout is or whether there will be enough room to spread out. She empathizes with students who are anxious to get back to campus after a year of virtual-only experiences.

But she worries. Last year, she says, “there were a lot of students who kept on going like nothing had changed." How’s she supposed to know that everyone will take the virus and the delta variant seriously?

Amid the surge in cases, WVU said last week that if it didn't reach its 80% vaccination goal for students and staff by Sept. 1, it would implement additional enforcement and safety protocols for unvaccinated individuals, including increased testing.

That didn't do enough to assuage staff fears. On Aug. 5, WVU faculty circulated a petition that demands vaccines be required for anyone on campus and that masks be required regardless of vaccination status. It asks that faculty “who live with someone who cannot currently be vaccinated” have the option to move their classes entirely online. It was signed by more than 70 faculty members who gave their name, title and the ages of their (unvaccinated) children.

Provost Maryanne Reed responded almost immediately, according to the organizers. "Be advised that we are in a difficult situation politically," she wrote. "Neither our governor nor legislative leaders are willing to support a vaccine or mask mandate at this time and there could be repercussions that would tie our hands in the future." She said she shared the petition with the university's senior leaders and WVU was taking the faculty concerns "very seriously."

Classes are scheduled to start next week.

Kristin Moilanen, child development professor at West Virginia University, says that in the push to return to on-campus work, there's "a constant feeling between keeping my career going or keeping my children safe – that’s a horrible choice."
Kristin Moilanen, child development professor at West Virginia University, says that in the push to return to on-campus work, there's "a constant feeling between keeping my career going or keeping my children safe – that’s a horrible choice."

“I don’t fault anybody above me,” Moilanen says. “I know everyone who is making these decisions, they’re trying to keep the doors open and the lights on, and that’s important. But at the same time, there’s just this constant feeling between keeping my career going or keeping my children safe – that’s a horrible choice.”

In Buffalo, New York, Margaret Sallee has similar concerns – and wonders how often people think about staff and faculty who double as parents or caregivers.

“The last year has been bananas,” says Sallee, a professor of higher education at the University at Buffalo who has 3-year-old twins. “As a single parent with very young kids, I’m extra cautious. What if I get sick? What if my kids get sick?"

As an education worker, Sallee is used to relaxing and rejuvenating summer breaks. But as college start dates creep closer and infections tick up, it’s been nonstop stress. She says she’s grateful to live in a state that takes COVID-19 seriously but knows it’s far from a perfectly safe situation.

Working remotely is not an option for Sallee when she has to teach, though she acknowledges her privilege in being able to work off campus when she’s not in class. She knows it’s not like that for thousands of staff and faculty members all over America, many of whom have been stretched thin.

The argument in favor of in-person work is that many colleges are residential, with students on campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Shouldn't the faculty and staff be there, too?

“There’s already plenty that wasn’t working in 2019 – why are we trying to go back to that?" Sallee said. "We’re missing a big opportunity to rethink how universities are run.”

'Great Resignation' coming?

The criticism that universities are going back to conventional ways of thinking and operating has some worried about the future of higher education, especially as it pertains to staffing. U.S. workers are quitting jobs in record numbers, many citing burnout. Others aren’t willing to return to in-person work.

'I quit': Workers change jobs at a record pace amid burnout, new openings with higher pay

Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, is particularly concerned about student affairs workers, who do the most hands-on and face-to-face work with students.

“I don’t think higher education is immune from the Great Resignation that we’re seeing across other industries,” he says.

Bradley Sharp of Saratoga, N.Y., gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner on July 30 in New York. Sharp needs the vaccination because it is required by his college. Hundreds of college campuses have told students they must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before classes begin in a matter of weeks.
Bradley Sharp of Saratoga, N.Y., gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner on July 30 in New York. Sharp needs the vaccination because it is required by his college. Hundreds of college campuses have told students they must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before classes begin in a matter of weeks.

Sallee at Buffalo, whose book “Creating Sustainable Careers in Student Affairs” was published in late 2020, says 50% of that profession's workers leave within the first five years – and that was before the stress of COVID-19. Many student affairs jobs, such as working with LGBTQ students, benefit from mid-career staffers' experience.

Kruger says NASPA doesn’t advocate for any particular way of doing business. He understands some aspects of student life pivoted well to online, such as teletherapy and Zoom workout classes, but elements such as residential life demand in-person responsibility.

In a NASPA survey of 1,005 student affairs staff, respondents were asked, “Which of the following operational changes from the pandemic do you think your institution will keep in place in the next five years?” Sixty-one percent said, “More flexibility to work remotely.” Kruger isn’t sure what happens if that doesn’t come to fruition.

Community colleges could face a unique set of challenges. Because they often cater to nontraditional and commuter students, there are concerns about how much exposure on-campus staff and students could receive, compared with a more insular, traditional four-year school community.

"Everybody is sick of being online, but at the same time, I’m excited to get back to the classroom. But at what cost?" says Courtney Buiniskis, an adjunct communications professor at Anne Arundel Community College, about an hour outside Washington.

Her school mandates masks inside, regardless of vaccine status, which she's happy about, but she has other concerns: "What if you have a student who doesn't want to wear a mask? Can students come to class sick? You worry about those things," she says.

Christopher Conzen, who works in student affairs at Hudson County Community College, says colleges have a not-so-secret reason to push for full campus reopenings.

“No one wants to say this out loud, but there’s a lot of money invested in having students on campus,” Conzen says. “It does not behoove universities to create an opportunity where students would be just as happy to stay home."

For Conzen and others, the only choice is to move forward, despite rising cases and rising anxiety.

“I just don’t think we’re ready” to go back to campus, Sallee says. “I’m not at least.”

She sighs: “But I guess I’ll be doing it.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Why did colleges reopen last fall? Money was a factor.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Delta at college: Professors fear fall 2021 semester without mandates