Faculty concerned with returning to campus, discusses COVID uncertainties in town hall


Eric Henry

The statue of John J. Egan, located outside of the Lincoln Park Student Center, wearing a mask.

On Wednesday Aug. 18, DePaul’s faculty council town hall took place virtually on Zoom. Introduced by Sonia Soltero, the newest faculty council president, the town hall served as a place for faculty to ask any questions regarding returning to campus.

Associate provosts Lucy Reinhart and Caryn Chaden preceded the Q&A portion of the town hall with pandemic updates.

“I don’t have too much news to share,” Chaden said. “Let me just reiterate that because things are changing so quickly, not because DePaul is leading changes but because they’re responding [to the pandemic], I urge you to keep track of the Covid [website]. The Covid information page [has] a wealth of information about what’s required of everybody.”

Chaden reiterated that all DePaul faculty, staff and students are required to be fully vaccinated or fill out a vaccination exemption waiver before returning to campus. Additionally, individuals on campus are required to wear masks at all times indoors, per the city’s mask mandate.

Also according to Chaden, as of Aug. 18, over 18,000 DePaul students have already submitted their vaccination documentation and 427 have submitted an exemption application. The school anticipates that there will be around 500 vaccination exemption waivers submitted by the time fall quarter begins, which is around twice the average number of waivers in previous years.

Chaden notes that while the amount of exemption applications is higher than normal, “that’s still small in the larger scheme of things.”

“Those students who are granted waivers will be tested at their own expense… so it is likely that many will ultimately decide to get vaccinated,” Chaden added.

Chaden compared DePaul’s current vaccination percentage to Purdue University, where 75 percent of all students, faculty and staff have been verified as fully vaccinated; whereas 83 percent of DePaul members have submitted vaccination documentation.

“So we’re doing okay [in comparison],” Chaden said.

Faculty Questions:

During the Q&A portion, faculty raised concerns on Covid-19 precautions and student support.

“I’m assuming we’re probably going to have a higher than normal load of people who will need things like help from [the Center for Students with Disabilities], help from the Dean of Students Office, you know, especially because these incoming first-year students took the last year of their education fully remotely probably,” said chemistry professor Kyle Grice.

“[These resources are] staffed and funded as they ever have been,” Chaden responded. “We’ve had long conversations about how those services will be offered … You can come in person, you can make an appointment on Zoom or you can call us on the phone. I anticipate that there will be more Zoom appointments than before the pandemic.”

College of Education professor Heather Little mentioned the rising number of breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals.

“How do we support students with concerns regarding the safety of family members (i.e. unvaccinated children, immunocompromised, etc.?” Little asked in the chat function.

“I’m just speaking as me, not as a representative of anything,” Chaden said. “I’m thinking that it’s going to have to be on a case-by-case basis … I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that these are questions that have already started conversations with advisors and that students in that situation are likely being advised to look for online classes.”

Multiple faculty members asked about Covid-19 precautions, including how professors should enforce mask mandates.

“That’s the same as any other disciplinary thing, you tell them nicely [to wear their mask], ” Chaden said. “And if they don’t comply … then you report them to the Dean of Students Office. You can tell them they can be suspended.”

Covid-19 Uncertainties:

Chaden informed faculty that they will not know which of their students are vaccinated and which are not, in accordance with HIPAA and FERPA privacy guidelines.

“Unless they tell you, you may not ask,” Chaden said. “There’s one exception to that. If you have field trips in your class and you are going to a location that requires proof of vaccination … that makes it legitimate for you to ask the University Registrar if there’s anyone in that situation because you may need to create an alternative assignment.”

It is also uncertain how DePaul will monitor whether non-vaccinated individuals attend periodic Covid-19 testing, as required by the university.

Other areas of uncertainty include whether students can remove their masks to eat or drink in classes, a factor that may affect diabetic students and those with other medical conditions.

“Some students with disabilities like my own — diabetes type 1 — may need to eat/drink in class,” wrote College of Computing and Digital Media professor Jessica Westbrook. “This is a concern and something to be aware of.”

Faculty questions also included logistics, such as protocols for inviting guest speakers into classrooms. While Chaden responded saying guests must wear masks indoors, per the city’s Covid-19 guidelines, it is uncertain how vaccination verification for guest speakers will take place.

According to Chaden, these concerns will be presented to the university for further clarification.

Additionally, political science professor Valerie Johnson asked if DePaul will provide booster shots for faculty and staff, which the CDC recommends. Chaden said the University hasn’t gotten that far yet.

DePaul’s Covid-19 precautions

Chaden assured faculty that if someone tests positive for Covid-19, DePaul’s contact tracing team will communicate with those affected.

While DePaul mandates mask wearing indoors in accordance with Chicago guidelines, the school will not enforce social distancing because it is not required by the city or CDC.

“Our mitigation efforts are vaccinations and masks,” Chaden said. “We simply do not have the capacity [for social distancing].”

Numerous faculty expressed concerns over the type of masks provided on campus and inquired about N95 masks, which, according to the CDC, are more effective than surgical ones. However, Chaden said only surgical masks will be available at certain locations across campus.

Despite the Covid-19 guidelines already in place at DePaul, some faculty members do not feel safe returning to campus in person.

“I do not think returning to a class where people are not vaccinated is a safe environment to return to,” mathematics professor Stefan Catoiu wrote in the Zoom chat. “Online teaching is much more effective teaching than masked in-person teaching.”

Chaden said that if a faculty member is uncomfortable teaching in person, they are prohibited from teaching online in order to “serve the needs of the students, not faculty preferences.”

“If the circumstances warrant, [the professor] can go through HR to get an accommodation,” Chaden added.

DePaul faculty’s concerns, questions and comments bring the future into question as the Delta variant rises alongside breakthrough Covid-19 cases. Despite the university’s health and safety guidelines, returning to campus after a year of remote learning may bring more concerns than relief.

“We will be following the guidance of the city and the CDC,” Chaden said. “Anything’s possible. Our hope, obviously, is to continue face to face.”