Professors voice opinions about in-person classes

Only a year ago, thousands of students were dismissed from their courses, walked outside and saw hordes of people grouped together during the afternoon rush hour between classes, scrambling to make it to their next lecture on time. Now, the crowds of students have disappeared and the classrooms are at minimal capacity, but the educational environment that students and professors have created at NAU is by all means present — it has just moved to a virtual format.

As NAU entered its third week of transitioning to a hybrid learning model, some challenges and safety concerns arose. However, professors praised the student body for their flexibility adapting to the new learning model.

Amy Hitt, an associate professor of practice in strategic communication, said her students have been great in regard to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Hitt said she feels safer in the classroom as compared to going to the grocery store. 

“I have felt safe in my classrooms,” Hitt said. “Most of that is based on the behavior, you know, students wearing masks, teachers wearing masks, everyone staying six feet apart. That is the way you have to do it at the grocery store and that’s the way it needs to be done in the classroom.”

Preparing for a lecture requires the same amount of work for Hitt, regardless if it is in person or virtual. Hitt said she feels the most stress during her class periods, but not when she is preparing for a course. She said it has been challenging to engage with students in the classroom and maintain awareness of comments on Zoom.

“I knew going in that it would be difficult and, honestly, I don’t feel like I performed as well as I hoped I would under those circumstances, so I know there is a big learning curve for me,” Hitt said. “I think I did OK attempting to engage the in-class students, because that’s what I am used to. What I failed at was continuing to engage the students who were on Zoom.”

Senior lecturer Michael Rulon is in his eighth year teaching French at NAU. Rulon praised his students by noting their flexibility, understanding and consideration.

Due to the size of his classrooms, Rulon divided his class into four groups, and he is unsure if students attending in person are receiving a better education than those attending virtually. Although there are complexities involved with teaching a foreign language class virtually, Rulon said he and his students created a great sense of community.

“Students were participating and they were enthusiastic,” Rulon said. “It was going a lot better than the second half of last semester, because the students were more prepared for what they were going to be doing.”

A shift to virtual learning has undoubtedly presented itself with technical difficulties. Rulon said his classes experienced technology issues, such as recording and sound problems, which are not conducive to learning a foreign language. 

“I have a student who’s attending from another country with a pretty serious time difference, and I’ve been trying to record classes so that she can watch them at any time that’s not in the middle of the night,” Rulon said. “I’ve managed to post, I think, three class recordings for her out of the five weeks.”

The most substantial challenge Rulon faced this semester was the inability to give virtual attendees the pronunciation help needed to succeed in a foreign language class.

Rulon said that the Zoom chat option was advantageous for shy students and sharing responses with the class.  However, he also said it is more difficult from a professor’s perspective to determine if students on Zoom are truly engaged with the course material.

Regarding in-person teaching, Rulon does not have many concerns due to the limited number of students who attend face-to-face lectures and because the attendees have been following the COVID-19 protocols the university implemented.

“I’m not feeling like I am in terrible danger,” Rulon said. “The students in my classes seem to be taking COVID safety pretty seriously. I made it clear that if they show up without a mask, they’re not coming into the classroom. We’ve been keeping the windows open and the doors open for fresh air.”

Rulon said he and his students are also actively using “tequila wipes” to clean the classroom before and after lectures. More specifically, he calls them “tequila wipes” due to their awful smell resembling tequila. 

Cate Ellis, a professor in the Department of Theatre, is currently in her 16th year as a professor at NAU. Ellis is teaching technical classes, including costume construction and introduction to design classes this semester.

Ellis’s costume construction class requires the use of a sewing machine, so unless students have access to a machine from home, they must attend in-person classes. Since early July, Ellis has been preparing demonstration videos for her students, which she said have their respective advantages and disadvantages.

“The disadvantage of this is that even though I started back in July, I’m still making these videos because they take more time than I anticipated,” Ellis said. “The benefit is that in the spring I will have those.”

Due to the nature of her costume construction class, Ellis averages nine people, including herself, in the classroom at any given time. Ellis and the Department of Theatre’s expectations are to trust students and faculty; however, safety concerns are still present.

“I’m in there with eight students for two hours,” Ellis said. “That’s below the 10% threshold, but we are in there for two hours.”

According to NAU’s website, the university is implementing mitigation testing by randomly selecting approximately 2,500 faculty, students and staff for COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis. 

Faculty received emails regarding when they must be tested, and The Lumberjack spoke to several of these employees — who wish to remain anonymous — before referencing these as containing “threatening” language.

“The communication to the faculty around the requirement of the mitigation testing was punitive in nature and was not conducive to getting faculty to want to do it,” an anonymous NAU professor said. “The email that was sent out to faculty … was very punitive and very threatening about if somebody doesn’t go and get this test that week, very bad things could happen. It was a threatening email.”

According to the email, those who refuse a COVID-19 test will be subject to punitive action. An anonymous NAU professor said these disciplinary actions include termination of the faculty member’s position. Spokesperson Kimberly Ott, who is also the assistant to the president, said in an email interview that the university does not discuss disciplinary actions for either students or employees.

“Upon notification, testing is required of all students and employees and the language about being subject to disciplinary actions is standard in that notification,” Ott said. “There is also the ability to request an exemption.”

Another anonymous NAU professor raised concerns about the accuracy of active cases on NAU’s campus. As of Sept. 16, Ott said NAU conducted 4,858 self-administered saliva-based tests at the University Union Fieldhouse. 

According to the coronavirus dashboard website, the university is managing 273 positive COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 18, which represents a significant increase from the 96 confirmations on Sept. 11 However, the anonymous professor had their doubts over the accuracy of these numbers.

“I would like better information about how many cases we actually have on campus, and I know part of the issue comes from how the cases are reported,” the unnamed professor said.

NAU’s website is updated on a weekly basis to inform the public about how many active cases the university is managing.

As NAU continues to transition to its hybrid learning model, professors emphasized the consideration, flexibility and understanding of the student body, while also recognizing some safety concerns of being in a classroom. Whether learning is done online or in person, the community proved its resilience in successfully adapting to any situations that present themselves.