COVID-19 and college: Professors say they worry about students and their families

University of Minnesota
Universities and colleges have different plans for returning to teaching this fall, and there are specific needs for many classroom settings. The University of Minnesota announced in June that the school would partially return to in-person classes and students on campus this fall, with social distancing and other safety measures for COVID-19.
John Hernandez | MPR News 2019

Diana Sullivan has mixed feelings when she thinks about teaching in person within the next couple of weeks. As a faculty member in the dental assistant program at Dakota County Technical College, she’s responsible for three courses a semester, to a total of 45 students.

”This fall is going to be replete with a lot of worries. But you can only worry so much, right? Just gotta get through it,” she said.

Universities and colleges have different plans for returning to teaching this fall, and there are specific needs for many classroom settings. Some, like the University of Minnesota, will offer in-person and remote classes. As faculty and instructors prepare to teach, they worry about their students and their families.

Sullivan will give lectures from a podium behind a piece of plexiglass. Her students will be split between two large rooms so they can be distant. While working on lab mannequins to practice dental hygiene work, they’ll wear what they normally do — masks, safety glasses and gloves.

The college administrator thinks about her exposure to the coronavirus, especially since she can’t control what her students do in their off hours.

“It's just my husband and myself. And I do worry if I bring something home to him. I would feel terrible of course, if I brought that into the house,” Sullivan said. “So for that, I guess you do but you know, I don't want to live my life in fear either. I just want to be the smartest that I can be with the information that I have.”

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Like Sullivan’s dental classes, there are some courses that just have to be taught in-person, such as welding and auto repair.

But there’s also some experimentation. The University of Minnesota will send students chemistry kits with home-safe ingredients to supplement in-person labs.

Matt Williams teaches English at Inver Hills Community College. He’s also the current president of the union for two-year Minnesota college faculty. He said most members of the Minnesota State College Faculty, but not all, are going remote this fall. Williams is worried about the effect of online teaching.

“We also know that remote instruction for many students is not ideal. And in some cases, it's impossible or just completely counterproductive,” he said. “So the question that we're all struggling with is, how do we help support our students to succeed while also trying to keep everyone safe?”

Williams is concerned that some older HVAC systems in buildings will just recirculate air, rather than filtering out and bringing in fresh air to keep those inside safe from spreading the virus.

“I think this gets the other thing that faculty are just feeling frankly frustrated about,” he said. “If the politicians and leaders are supporting the resumption of these in-person on-campus activities this fall, we're wondering, why was there no bonding at the Legislature to help address this and other pressing issues.”

Carol Chomsky is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, where she’s taught since 1985. She said preparing all her classes to be taught remotely is “a huge amount of work.” 

“The anxiety is mostly about the transition to a new kind of teaching more than it is about the health risks. And part of the reason that I'm less concerned about the health aspect is because we were given the choice of how we wanted to teach,” Chomsky, who is a member of the faculty senate, said. “It was our choice rather than the mandate.”

There’s a sense that all plans are subject to change if cases of COVID-19 rise. Some aren’t waiting for things to get worse. Macalester College in St. Paul announced Monday that for the first two weeks of the fall semester, all classes will be held online.