‘I still have my doubts’: What some BYU professors think about returning to campus this fall

BYU professor and broadcast news lab production manager Alan Neves works to prepare the “Newsline” set for Fall Semester. Many professors are doing their part to prepare for what will be a semester full of unknowns. (Addie Blacker)

See also: How BYU professors chose delivery methods for Fall classes

University professors across the country have been expressing their concerns about returning to their respective campuses in the fall.

Some have even said they are unwilling to step foot on campus until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, as reported by The New York Times. But what do BYU professors think?

BYU announced its plan for Fall Semester on June 23. It includes a hybrid mix of in-class and digital learning.

The university has also outlined a set of precautions that will be taken to ensure the safety of the students and faculty, including requiring masks on campus at all times, implementing social distancing measures in classrooms and shifting to fully online learning after Thanksgiving.

Preparing for the unpredictable

Despite the thorough precautions, some professors are still concerned about returning to campus this fall.

“I still have my doubts about how effective the whole experience is going to be, especially if students start getting sick or if I get sick,” BYU Spanish professor Dale Pratt said. “If somebody gets sick, then they have to kind of just head home and have to worry about all of that on top of the schooling — so I have trepidation about it.” 

Due to a health condition, Pratt said he won’t be attending campus at all in the fall but will be teaching his classes remotely from his home in Provo.

He typically spends his summers in Europe doing research, but this summer he’s instead spent his time reading books and preparing for how to teach his classes in the fall, including learning about online teaching ideas.

“As far as learning, I think that we’re going to try hard to do a good job,” he said.

Pratt said he still has concerns that things will get worse before they get better. But if that happens — forcing students to transition to full-online learning earlier than planned — because of his preparation, he’s “going to be ready for that.”

BYU professor Dale Pratt works from his home office in Provo. Pratt will be teaching all of his classes remotely from his home this Fall Semester. (Dale Pratt)

BYU public health professor Chantel Sloan expressed her confidence in BYU students, though there are still concerns present.

Sloan said she was pleased that BYU waited to make the announcement about Fall Semester, adding that several thoughtful and careful discussions at the administrative level went into that decision.

“I was involved in some of those discussions because I work in infectious disease prevention, so I was very pleased when they announced mandatory masks in class and social distancing and all of those protocols that they’re going to have in place,” she said. “I think those are going to go a long way to keeping faculty and students safe.”

Like Pratt, Sloan said she has also been preparing for the fall and exploring ways she can keep her students engaged through different class formats.

“A lot of us have been doing training and online teaching over the summer to understand the differences and how those courses need to be delivered,” she said. “It’s still going to be a learning curve.”

Underlying concerns

Sloan said her biggest concern is that students and faculty in high-risk groups are exposed.

“We want to be able to welcome back everybody to campus who needs to be here, regardless of any preexisting health conditions they have, which means that everybody needs to buy in and say we’re all this together,” she said.

Jacob Newman is in that high-risk category and has to worry not only about starting his master’s degree in the fall but also teaching an introductory Spanish course.

He’s planning on staying at home in Kaysville to teach his online class remotely and commute to campus when necessary — but it’s all still up in the air.

“I was pretty frustrated (by BYU’s announcement) because of the fact that it’s subject to further instruction since it’s provisional,” he said. “We don’t know if in a few weeks BYU’s decision will be the same.”

With Utah COVID-19 cases still on the rise, there are a number of unknowns regarding Fall Semester. That’s why Sloan emphasized the importance of following the rules.

“This is all about protecting other people, protecting our larger Provo community, and maintaining that over the course of the semester where you know, just human nature could be very tempting to want to ease up and not worry about it so much and do things in a more normal way,” she said.

Though the university can carefully control what happens on campus, off-campus will be a different story, according to Sloan. She said a key precaution students can take is to essentially use the “bubble method,” which has been effective in New Zealand and other areas. The method allows people to form a “bubble” of those whom they can have close physical contact — Sloan suggested roommates and significant others — but then strictly follow the rules like wearing a mask and social distancing wherever else they go.

“If you’re going to be relaxed with anybody, it needs to consistently be the same people, and they need to also be in agreement that you’re part of their bubble and they’re not out interacting with lots of people without a mask on and without taking precautions,” Sloan said. “Students might consider, either right before they get here or when they’re on campus, that they have some candid conversations with the people that are close to them and try to form those bubbles.”

There is still much concern from some professors surrounding BYU’s upcoming Fall Semester. However, professors are working to prepare the best they can to adapt to the current situation, and according to Pratt, BYU is better poised to handle this crisis than most.

“I think if any university in the country is going to have a shot at pulling this off, where the students practice healthy protocols and keep the rules,” he said, “it’s going to be BYU.”

See also: How BYU professors chose delivery methods for Fall classes

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