Students walk along the University of Maine campus in March just days before it closed due to coronavirus. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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As the state’s public and private universities make plans to reopen campus this fall, a majority of professors at Maine’s flagship university don’t want to return to teaching in person.

Some 57 percent of more than 250 professors who responded to a late June survey said they felt uncomfortable with teaching in classrooms this fall as the coronavirus pandemic continues and as new cases surge nationally.

At the same time, about 49 percent of the professors said they were making plans to resume in-person teaching, even though only 43 percent said they wanted to.

“It’s not the actual percentage that really matters there. It’s just that there was a discrepancy that was significant between those who would like to return and those who were actually making those plans,” Lisa Neuman, an associate anthropology professor who leads UMaine’s chapter of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, said. The organization is the professors’ union.

Neuman received responses from about half of union members. The survey didn’t include another 100 professors on campus who don’t belong to the union, nor did it include adjunct professors.

The University of Maine System last week announced its plans for reopening campuses. Those plans include a shorter in-person semester, with students not returning after Thanksgiving; more sparsely populated residence halls; and smaller class sizes. The university system has also struck a testing partnership that will allow students, professors and others coming to university campuses from out of state to be tested. Some groups of in-state students, such as athletes who spend long periods of time in close contact with others, will also be tested.

Neuman conducted the survey of faculty union members and sent professors’ comments to administrators before the university system announced those reopening plans.

At UMaine, with more than 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students, administrators expect that more than half of classes will take place in person, according to interim Provost Faye Gilbert.

Twenty-three percent of classes would take place in a traditional classroom environment while 35 percent would be small research groups, independent studies or students working on dissertations.

Eight percent of classes would take place online without scheduled lectures or class discussions. Another 26 percent of classes would be held remotely, similar to how the university offered classes this past spring after closing down campus in March. The university hasn’t decided how to offer the remaining 8 percent of classes.

“I don’t believe we’re going to have to force anyone to do anything,” Gilbert said. “It seems to be laying out pretty well with people expressing their beliefs about the best way to offer their classes, and that portfolio of needs.”

A number of professors said their feelings about returning to in-person teaching were influenced by them or someone close to them being at serious risk from the coronavirus due to their age or health status. Others expressed concern about the ethics of endangering everyone by bringing students back.

Some faculty opinions could have changed since UMaine detailed its reopening plans, but not significantly, Neuman said.

“I think that the fact that testing is in place and it looks like there’s a lot of thought that’s gone into contact tracing and quarantining could make a little bit of a difference,” she said. “But there were so many people who said, ‘I just can’t go back because of my age or my health condition or my family member. I’m not able to go back until I’m really safe.’”

Of the faculty members who said they did not plan to teach in-person, 75 percent said widespread use of a COVID-19 vaccine would make them more willing to do so, and 63 percent said it would take regular testing of students throughout the semester to make them more comfortable with the idea.

Neuman personally does not plan on returning to in-person instruction this fall because of some health issues in her family. She said the union expects the university to allow faculty to choose how they want to offer their classes.

“If the university says, ‘we’re going to force somebody to teach,’ AFUM would take a strong stance against that,” she said. “But I think the university is trying to work with everybody to make sure people have some options, and that they are aware of the options that they have.”

William Nichols, a literacy education professor and president of the UMaine Faculty Senate, said he plans to offer his class, for which about 20 students have signed up, partially in person. The classroom he typically uses can only accommodate six students based on social distancing guidelines, but he might split students up and have them attend in smaller groups on different days.

“I want the students to have as close to an authentic university experience as they possibly can and that’s why I’m going to make sure that there’s a face-to-face component to my instruction,” Nichols said. “But I will also be providing online access to remote learners.”

Rob Glover, a political science professor, said he will probably not return to in-person instruction, but that he hasn’t finalized his decision yet. He’ll make a final decision based on the state of the pandemic in the upcoming weeks, he said.

“What I can’t say with certainty is that the majority of my teaching in the fall is going to happen online, not in the classroom, and that’s true for the university as a whole,” he said.

Glover has already made adjustments to classes he used to teach to make them more suitable for remote instruction. He canceled one class that was based on students going out into the community for research.

While he’s worried about the implications of bringing thousands of people back together on campus, living and learning in close proximity while COVID-19 case numbers are on an uptick nationally, he said he was also pleased with the extent of the university’s planning for the fall.

“I’m pleased at the fact that this was done in consultation with our scientific community, that it wasn’t just the administrators in a bubble crafting this plan,” Glover said. “It’s really good that I don’t think anyone has been compelled — student or faculty or staff member — to be on campus or else.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report mischaracterized the group of faculty who indicated in the survey what would make them more comfortable with teaching in person.