UW-Eau Claire faculty express concerns about in-person instruction after Thanksgiving break

Interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences says university will encourage students to stay in Eau Claire for fall recess

More stories from Ta'Leah Van Sistine

Life in the city
December 8, 2021

Photo by Alee Erickson

Rodd Freitag, interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, said Chancellor James C. Schmidt will be meeting with UW System administration before he addresses the campus community about future plans for instruction after the holiday break.

A group of 16 UW-Eau Claire faculty from the department of mathematics emailed a letter on Oct. 28 to the Chancellor’s office, encouraging university administration, faculty, staff and students to commit to remote instruction after the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“We propose this now, four full weeks in advance of Fall Recess, to provide us with an opportunity to plan,” Silviana Amethyst, an assistant professor of mathematics, said in the email.  “We can reduce the predictable spread of COVID-19 both during Thanksgiving Break, in the following weeks of instruction and finals, and in the return home at the conclusion of the semester in December.”

Freitag’s response

Rodd Freitag, interim dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, responded to the 16 faculty from the department of mathematics, and copied department chairs and program directors from the College of Arts and Sciences, in an email he sent on Oct. 29.

Freitag said once Chancellor James C. Schmidt meets with UW System administration, he will address the campus community some time next week about future plans for instruction after the fall recess.

There are plans “to offer testing to all students both before and after the fall break” and plans “to encourage all students to remain in Eau Claire for Thanksgiving break,” Freitag said in the email.

As one way to encourage students to stay in Eau Claire, Freitag said the university is discussing plans to offer a dinner on Nov. 26 in Davies Student Center, which would be hosted by Sodexo, a company that provides dining services on campus.

In an interview with The Spectator, Freitag said, from his understanding, a dinner is offered every year on campus for international students and those who remain in Eau Claire during the Thanksgiving break. He said this fall semester is only different because university administration hopes more people will stay on campus and in the Eau Claire area. 

Faculty raise concerns about in-person instruction after holiday break

During a department of mathematics meeting on Oct. 20, Amethyst said several faculty, including herself, raised concerns about returning to campus after the fall recess.

“There was enough passion in the room that I said ‘If you’re interested in helping me write a letter, send me an email,’ ” Amethyst said. Seven people emailed her after the meeting, expressing interest in co-authoring a letter.

Amethyst then shared a draft of the letter with the mathematics department on Oct. 23, so faculty could discuss it at their upcoming department meeting on Oct. 27. During the time period before the department meeting, Amethyst said more faculty members emailed her and said they were willing to sign their names on the letter. 

The final letter was then emailed on the evening of Oct. 28 to the Chancellor’s office, in addition to the 16 mathematics department faculty who signed the letter, faculty and staff in academic departments across campus, university administration and several student leaders who were copied onto the email.

Also included in the final letter was an appendix with data from Oct. 20, analyzing daily and active COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County.

Although the email was sent directly to the Chancellor’s office, Amethyst said she copied other faculty, staff and students onto the email because she wants every person at the university to understand the potential consequences that could come with continuing in-person classes after the fall break. 

“My goal isn’t just to change the Chancellor’s mind, but to change the mind of the community,” Amethyst said, “so that we can collectively reduce our travel over fall recess.” 

With almost four weeks before the Thanksgiving break, Amethyst said it was important to send the letter as soon as possible.

“If we had time to plan, I think that we could make (the) transition successful and not jarring,” Amethyst said, “in contrast to the sudden change we experienced in the spring, which was challenging for absolutely everybody.”

Some faculty already plan to do remote instruction

Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor in the sociology and communication and journalism departments at UW-Eau Claire, said he has decided to move his courses online for the rest of the semester after Thanksgiving break. 

After attending a university senate meeting and hearing his colleagues’ concerns, Hart-Brinson said he realized it didn’t make sense to ask his students, who come to in-person class once a week, to come to class just two more times for the last two weeks of the semester.

“All of my final exams are all online submission,” Hart-Brinson said, “and so I just thought to myself, ‘That seems like unnecessary travel for no real pedagogical benefit.’ ” 

Hart-Brinson said academic department chairs can’t approve faculty requests to transition their courses online because the chairs need to abide by the administration’s policy. But the chairs also can’t tell faculty not to teach their classes remotely, Hart-Brinson said.

For this reason, many faculty members have made the shift to online-only instruction for pedagogical reasons, Hart-Brinson said, because faculty find it unsustainable to have only one or two students show up in the classroom and have all other students online. 

Response to Freitag’s email

When Amethyst saw Freitag’s emailed response on Oct. 29 to the letter she and 15 other faculty members signed, she said she appreciated receiving a swift response.

But she said she is concerned about the plans to offer COVID-19 testing for all students before and after the Thanksgiving break.

“Because the holiday (break) is four days long and because the incubation period for the disease is up to two weeks, testing once after fall break will not produce safety in the way that it’s intended,” Amethyst said. 

She said she hopes the university focuses more on reducing the amount of travel students, faculty and staff will be doing after the fall recess. 

“Traveling for Thanksgiving holiday, returning to campus and going home again at the end of the semester is three travel events,” Amethyst said. “Every single one is a spreading event.”

Continuing the discussion

Freitag said during this semester, there will continue to be ongoing conversations about concerns related to the pandemic, and he recognized that UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff have a variety of opinions on what actions the university should take.

“There are those who would really like to continue in-person instruction for as long as we can,” Freitag said. “There are lots of voices on campus, and they all make very good arguments. Having faculty express concerns is part of what we do, and it’s a healthy thing to continue those conversations.”

Van Sistine can be reached at [email protected].