IIT's campus is located in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Credit: Josh Evnin/Flickr

BRONZEVILLE — As the fall semester draws closer, students and faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology are worried about just what the next few months will look like — and how the school will keep them and the community around the school safe.

Dheeksha Ranginani, a rising senior at IIT and a member of the Student Health Initiative — a student-led group formed to disseminate information and resources about IIT’s fall semester plans — said there is a “general anxiety” surrounding the fall semester for everyone.

“As we get closer and closer to semester — since it’s only a couple of weeks away — people are just getting more stressed about wanting to know exactly what their day to day schedule is going to look like and whether or not they’ll be able to get around safely,” she said.

IIT is one of many colleges and universities across Illinois who will be allowed to open their doors this fall under state guidelines that require social distancing and face masks. Students traveling to any school in Chicago from a virus hot spot — including Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida — are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Still, the school’s location in Bronzeville and the significant number of commuter students traveling across the city to campus has given faculty members pause as they consider the implications of a push for in-person interactions. In letters sent to administrators and town halls, faculty members have pushed back on the school’s plan and said it undermined professors’ wishes and concerns for the fall.

Both students and faculty said an outbreak on campus could create a dangerous situation in the surrounding community and the rest of the city. The faculty letter to administrators said the largely transient campus will pose a unique risk as the pandemic rages on across the state and the city.

“State Street is a major thoroughfare and students, faculty, and staff live across the city,” the letter stated. “We are worried about the devastating possibility of serving as disease vectors.”

“Every additional person on campus exponentially increases the danger to essential workers on campus and to our communities on campus, in Bronzeville, and across the neighborhoods and suburbs where we live,” it added.

The state reported 1,298 new cases Monday, as numbers are slowly climbing throughout Chicago and Illinois.

With the rise in coronavirus cases in Chicago, coupled with stress about the entire school community’s ability to abide by precautions, students and faculty members said that the current plan needs to reflect their own interests for a peculiar fall semester.

A letter from faculty members to administrators chided IIT officials for their push for in-person courses and “lack of transparency” around fall plans.

“The stated plan also exponentially increases the danger to staff and essential workers on campus and to the surrounding community,” it read. “We are not disposable, regardless of rank or position in the university. Our students are not disposable. Our community members are not disposable.”

‘Scared To Go Into The Classroom

Faculty members at IIT are joining throngs of professors across Illinois to oppose in-person instruction in the fall. In letters to administrators and interviews, IIT faculty criticized the push for in-person classes, calling on leaders to allow for more flexibility in their fall semester plans.

Eighteen faculty members sent a letter last week to administrators stating there was no “pedagogical justification” for administrators’ decision and that it was made too quickly without consideration and support for faculty during a “worsening pandemic.”

“This lack of transparency undermines faculty control of the curriculum and is an administration-driven rather than faculty-driven curricular decision,” the letter read. “Faculty should be the decision makers guiding curriculum and deciding on the best format for courses.”

A statement from a school spokesperson Monday said the reopening plans were “developed in collaboration with the University Faculty Council, acting through its chair, university leaders, and staff representing the entire breadth of the university.”

Earlier this summer, IIT officials announced 70 percent of classes will be entirely in-person or in a hybrid format, maintaining some live component.

In a July 24 letter, IIT’s Provost and Senior Vice President Peter Kilpatrick wrote the school “owe[s]” it their students to deliver their education entirely or partially in-person through “in person recitation or problem-solving sessions.”

“We are all part of a single institution, and the university has an overall target of 70%, in order to ensure that all students have an opportunity for significant direct interaction with faculty, which is what they expect, and for which they are paying,” he wrote.

Philosophy professor Warren Schmaus said that “almost everyone” in his department “opted for online,” which made school officials “unhappy.”

The school also released a teaching schedule that specified the format of each course offered in the fall. Some faculty members who originally requested an online course were assigned a course with an in-person component, according to Schmaus.

Faculty could opt out of in-person or hybrid courses by submitting an accommodation request asserting that they have “demonstrable health vulnerabilities,” or by appealing to their department chairs, deans or the University Faculty Council, per the July 24 letter. The letter said the faculty could also take “an unpaid leave of absence” or continue research and teaching remotely and “take a decrease in salary proportional to their teaching duties.”  

Schmaus, the associate chair of the humanities department, said the school’s plans disadvantage part-time instructors who teach freshmen, whose courses were likely to be in-person.

“I got the spreadsheet and I saw [my class] listed as online and said, thank goodness, because I’m over 65, and I think that it’s unreasonable to expect people to have to go to human resources to get accommodations,” he said.

A university spokesperson said that as of Monday, 771 IIT courses are being offered in the fall. Forty-nine percent of classes are hybrid, 42 percent are online and 9 percent are in person — falling short of the 70 percent target originally set by the school.

In a July 31 email to faculty, Kilpatrick wrote that administrators tried to accommodate as many reported faculty preferences as possible after receiving more than 100 new requests.

Faculty are also concerned about the safety of in-person classes and have expressed doubts about the benefits of these interactions when weighed against the risk.

“We know that the biggest danger is being in a confined space with someone who is infected, maybe asymptomatically … in a confined space, breathing the same air while people are talking or coughing or sneezing, and this is the most dangerous situation to be in,” said Jay Schieber, a professor of chemical engineering, applied mathematics and physics.

“So I was not at all eager to get into a room with a bunch of students for several hours a week and do this,” he added.

In a statement Monday, a school spokesperson wrote that any in-person instruction would adhere to state and city guidelines. Face masks and social distancing are required, and all rooms will be reduced to 25 percent or less occupancy, with a maximum of 50 individuals.

Karl Stolley, an associate professor of digital writing and rhetoric, said the school’s reopening plans should be guided by “science and technology,” as well as “pedagogy.”

Stolley said it will be a challenge to safely fit students in courses on campus unless classes are run 24 hours a day. He said he prefers online courses and that the subject he teaches adapts well to the format.

“I would much rather have a uniform way to meet with my students where everybody is meeting relatively at the same time, or at least having the same experience if it’s online, so that I can focus my attention as an instructor, working with my students, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “My preference is to do that online.”

History professor Margaret Power, who is not teaching in the fall, said the IIT administration is in a difficult position when it comes to scheduling courses but that she understands professors’ apprehension to teach in-person.

“A lot of professors are understandably scared to go into the classroom,” she said. “I think IIT is trying to do the very best it can to make a safe situation, but I think the numbers of COVID are rising all across this country.”

Keeping Students Safe

As faculty seek information about their schedules in the fall, IIT students are organizing resources to aid their peers to safely take on the upcoming semester.

A group of roughly 15 students and more volunteers banded together to create the Student Health Initiative to communicate important information to students during the pandemic and meet with administrators to ensure they hear student concerns.

“The Student Health Initiative is a group of about 15 or so dedicated students and then a larger group of more casual volunteers that are working to increase the efficacy of communication between Illinois Tech student body and the university administration,” Emma Stohlman, a rising senior at IIT said.

“We are also working to make sure that the student body is provided as many resources as possible to keep themselves and the faculty safe during the fall semester with the pandemic going on.”

The group has worked with the school’s facilities department to plan distributions of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer around campus. They also raised money for a school fundraiser entitled “Hawks4Hawks” to help students under financial strain during the pandemic.

Ranginani said the group also worked with school administrators to redirect $1 million of a donation from IIT alum and board chair Michael Galvin toward COVID-19 testing for students not covered by the campus health insurance plan.

IIT guidelines state that students must get tested before returning to campus, in addition to quarantining if coming from a state with high levels of cases.

Stohlman, who is coming back to campus in the fall, said administrators have made it clear that they will be following “the minimum city and state safety guidelines.” She said she is worried that school officials are not prepared for “at least 1,200 students from out of state coming into Bronzeville, interacting with one another, not necessarily having taken the proper precautions.”

“We have a lot of faculty members who are in a high-risk demographic…They get COVID-19, they might die,” Stohlman said. “That’s distressing, that we aren’t preparing to keep them safe and to keep our students safe down the line.”

In a statement Monday, an IIT spokesperson wrote that “university leadership, faculty, and staff have worked continuously over the last few months to design a campus reopening consistent with state and city guidelines and in support of student and faculty success.” Students are allowed to take all of their classes online if they wish to do so, per the statement.

According to a poll of 272 students conducted during a town hall in late July, the number of students who prefer some form of in-person classes versus all virtual courses is split evenly. Forty-two percent of students prefer each a hybrid class model and online model. Sixteen percent of the polled students prefer in-person instruction.

Ranginani said it was especially important to present students with enough information throughout the fall semester to ensure that they will follow guidelines.

“I don’t think it’s a one and done approach,” she said. “Otherwise, people will forget and move on and go back to their normal habits. It’s going to be presenting that social distancing information repeatedly in different ways to continually get people’s attention and keep that on their mind.”

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