‘I was not expecting this’: KU students, faculty, brace for in-person semester as COVID surges

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Associated Press file photo

Student, staff and faculty leaders at the University of Kansas are anxiously awaiting a potential COVID surge on campus after administrators announced this week that classes would go forward in-person as planned.

More than 18,000 undergraduates will return to KU for the spring semester on Tuesday, without any adjustments to classes scheduled to be taught in-person. Some faculty and staff expressed frustration with the decision to move ahead while other colleges and universities across the country announced plans to begin remotely or push back the start of the semester altogether to mitigate the spread of COVID.

“I was not expecting this, given many institutions’ decisions to postpone in-person classes, some for two weeks, and I thought that KU would be following the decisions of other institutions,” said Hossein Saiedian, University Senate president at KU.

After KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer on Monday confirmed plans to return to in-person classes, Saiedian said many faculty members reached out to him with concerns about exposure in the classroom from students. Some have young, unvaccinated children at home or are caring for elderly or other vulnerable family members, he said.

“My initial thought was that I’m grateful that my 7-year-old son is vaccinated because I teach a large class this spring,” said Ani Kokobobo, an associate professor and chair of the Slavic Languages and Literatures department. “That’s part of it that I’m deeply grateful for, but my next step was, I have friends whose children are under five, and they don’t feel that way.”

KU initially required all employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 8, but paused the mandate after it was halted by the federal courts pending resolution of legal challenges.

About 83% of employees at KU’s Lawrence and Edwards campuses are vaccinated, Chancellor Douglas Girod announced in December.

Masks are still required in all campus buildings, as they were in the fall. But the burden of enforcement falls to professors, graduate teaching assistants and other university employees, many of whom are KU students themselves.

“For administration, for the most part unless they’re going to a meeting, they’re in their offices and around the same people every day,” KU Student Body President Niya McAdoo said. “Whereas faculty, depending on their workload, could have anywhere from 20 to 100 to 200 students every day or every other day, and so the management of (masks) falls on them.”

“If that’s going to be the case, then there needs to be better institutional support for those faculty, staff, and student workers who make our university continue to operate,” she continued.

Instructors are not required to provide a virtual option to their courses, Bichelmeyer said in her announcement to campus, but many did so last semester and will continue to do so.

After a year of online or hybrid courses, students have determined what is best for them and have voiced those needs, Kokobobo said.

“I know I have an obligation to be there in person and I did have students in the fall who expressed that they want to be in person,” she said. “But I’ve also always created an opportunity for students to join via Zoom in part because if they have the slightest symptom or don’t know what’s going on, I don’t want them to have to worry about their attendance and take a risk.”

As COVID cases rise in Douglas County and across Kansas, it is uncertain when the surge may end. And with about 18,500 undergraduate students anticipated to return to Lawrence next week, many are worried about what may turn into a serious spike in COVID cases.

The 14-day average case count in Douglas County was 214.64 on Jan. 10, according to health officials. That accounts for positive COVID tests between Dec. 25 and Jan. 7 and is a nearly 278% increase from the previous 14-day count.

“I think probably the most unsettling thing is that we’ve had several pandemic semesters and they are each different than the other, you know, in that they present us with different challenges,” Kokobobo said. “So I really don’t know what to expect at all.”

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