App State COVID-19 protocol: administration and faculty at odds

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Emily Broyles and Ethan Hunt

App State faculty and administration started the first day of class in disagreement over COVID-19 protocol for the semester.

Seven App State deans said faculty members may be spreading misinformation regarding university COVID-19 protocol in an email to all students Monday. The email came on the first day of class shortly after the wide circulation of a professor’s open letter to students, writing the App State administration has “failed” in its pandemic response. 

“It has come to our attention that some faculty might be sharing misinformation about university COVID safety protocols, procedures and decision-making that are inaccurate and potentially harmful,” said the deans’ email.

All college deans signed the email except for Sue Polanka of the Library and Information Commons and Jeff Vahlbusch of the Honors College.

App State Chief Communications Officer, Megan Hayes, wrote in a statement to The Appalachian that the email to students Monday was intended to ensure students have factual information regarding the universities COVID-19 response, particularly because Centers for Disease Control guidelines have recently changed. 

Sustainable Development professor Richard Rheingans wrote about his displeasure with the university administration’s pandemic response in an open letter to students Sunday. He shared the letter with colleagues who sent the message to other students or departments. Rheingans also sent the statement to the SGA Cabinet. 

“In so many ways, the Appalachian State administration has failed us throughout this pandemic and now, despite a month of warning that we would face another major covid surge, they have done virtually nothing to set us up for a safe, undisrupted semester,” Rheingans wrote. 

Rheingans advocated for booster shots, properly worn and better face coverings such as N95, KN95 or KF94 masks, and clearer communication on testing policy in the letter. 

He also wrote that Chancellor Sheri Everts refused to meet with faculty, and the university did not tell students to get tested for COVID-19 on the fifth day of quarantine. Hayes told The Appalachian both statements were false. 

Rheingans wrote that the administration has not provided faculty with sufficient support and guidelines for how to handle students who test positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed. 

“The Chancellor writes to students telling them to talk to faculty about short-term remote options, but I have not heard a single message or policy or strategy regarding what that would realistically look like for faculty,” Rheingans wrote. 

Everts wrote in a message to the university, Jan. 3 that students should communicate with faculty about arranging short-term remote options, and faculty should reach out to supervisors for help facilitating them. 

“Faculty who have questions about classroom management should, per their faculty handbook 2.8(f) and (g), work with their department chairs to determine the best course of action,” Hayes wrote Tuesday.  

Other faculty members agree they have not received adequate support or guidance from administrators.

During the meeting, faculty senators presented a survey in which 441 faculty members answered COVID-19 related questions. Of the respondents, 63% answered they do not believe App State’s pandemic policies will allow the semester to continue without disruption. Additionally, more than 300 did not believe that App State’s COVID-19 protocol will protect students and the greater High Country community. 

There are 403 active cases in Watauga County as of Jan. 11, according to the AppHealthCare dashboard. The App State COVID-19 dashboard has not been updated since Dec. 10

“The administration needs to be realistic,” said Stella Anderson, management professor.  “There is only so much faculty can do to accommodate individual circumstances, have a class in person going and provide quote ‘remote options’ for students which as stated I don’t know exactly what that means.”

Michael Hambourger, chemistry professor and faculty senate vice chair, said it is easier to teach an all online class or an all in-person but combining the two is challenging and hard to accommodate. 

“Everyone’s kind of scrambling in the dark looking for the right path to keep the educational experience strong while not getting people sick, yet we feel like there’s no guidance, and as soon as we step out of line, we’re going to get yelled at,” Hambourger said. 

Hambourger addressed the deans’ email at the Jan 10. faculty senate meeting. He asked the deans to clarify what they meant by “misinformation” in the email. 

“It was crickets. No one answered,” Hambourger said. 

Anderson also attended the faculty senate meeting and said she wanted the context surrounding the email but did not receive any at the meeting. 

“That’s extraordinarily disheartening to receive a message like that, that does not acknowledge faculty’s leadership on this issue, faculty’s expertise as it relates to delivering their classes, about our commitment to our students,” Anderson said. 

Provost Heather Norris said during the meeting the “number one problem” App State director of environmental health, safety and emergency management, Jason Marshburn is facing is “misinformation.” 

“They have not trusted faculty judgment. That is clear in every communication they have sent,” Anderson said. “It’s not like we haven’t tried to have this conversation, to have this exchange to impress upon administrators the reality for faculty in trying to make this work and trying to have the best possible semester.”

The timing of the university’s email left Rheingans unsure if it was a response to his open letter, he told The Appalachian. Rheingans later wrote the dean and chair of his department asking for clarification.

“If it is a reference to something I wrote, I certainly want to know what’s the misinformation that I might be providing and if there’s anything I wrote that could jeopardize student wellbeing,” Rheingans said. “That’s the last thing I want to do.” 

The professor said he sent the letter not in hopes of creating more stress but in creating dialogue “that was necessary between faculty and students at large.” Rheingans said he’s not frustrated but “disappointed more because I don’t think this tension is necessary.”

“It’s not hard to do this better, to get to a place where we can find a better balance that’s both better education and better safety than where we’re at,” Rheingans said. “I feel like we’re missing it because the conversation is so polarized.”