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Friday, July 01, 2022 — Houston, TX

Classes with over 50 students expected to remain virtual unless petitioned

Illustrated by Chloe Xu

By Bonnie Zhao     9/7/21 10:46pm

Rice University announced last week that classes with over 50 students are expected to be delivered remotely unless instructors of those classes successfully request an exemption to teach face-to-face, according to an email sent by the Office of the Provost.

Christopher Johns-Krull, the speaker of the Faculty Senate, said that the decision to have larger classes held online was to provide an extra layer of safety against potentially large COVID spreading events.

“We have no indication that the classroom has spread the disease, we don’t know for sure,” Johns-Krull said. “But we know that the Delta variant is more transmissible. So we’re trying to watch out for safety as best we can given the information that we have.”

Provost Reginald DesRoches said Rice uses dynamic risk assessment to adjust the strictness of their public health policies strategy.

“While we have no evidence that classes greater than 50 would be less safe, we are acting out of an abundance of caution as the population dynamics of [the delta variant] remain poorly understood and the number of cases in the Houston area remains high,” DesRoches said.

DesRoches said that the longevity of the policy depends on the COVID-19 conditions on campus and in the surrounding community.

“The Crisis Management Advisory Committee meets multiple times a week to assess the latest surveillance data and adjust university policy to achieve the best balance of health and safety safeguards and [meaningful] in-person learning experience,” DesRoches said.

Johns-Krull said there is a possibility that this policy may be for the full semester, but that it also may be temporary depending on the situation. 

According to Johns-Krull, professors that believe the nature of their material works better in in-person format are encouraged to talk with their deans, their department chairs, and the provost to come to the best solution for a given class, depending on its particular needs. 

“We do recognize that classes, and some classes more than others, really don’t function as well online as they do in person,” Johns-Krull said. “So [it’s] a balancing act to try and preserve both the educational experience and the overall safety [of our community]. Trying to strike that right balance is a little uncertain.”

Noah Spector, a Baker College freshman, created a change.org petition in response to the policy, calling for the administration to give professors the choice to teach in person. 

According to Johns-Krull, the original policy already gives professors the option to teach in-person.

“They do need to file a petition with the Provost, in large part to make sure everything is tracked in our records properly,” Johns-Krull said. “But faculty do already have this choice.”

Spector said that he was prompted to create the change.org petition after he was told that ECON 100, a class with nearly 600 students and broken into sections, will remain online.

“[We] were so excited about getting back in the classroom … [and our professor] was so excited about getting back in the classroom,” Spector said. “It was completely devastating to hear him say ‘Nope, sorry’ and have it completely pulled out from underneath him.”

Spector said that a large reason for creating the change.org petition was to inform the administration of how much students care about in-person education.

Shortly after the change.org petition was created, James DeNicco, the professor for ECON 100, successfully petitioned to teach the course face-to-face.

DeNicco said that the rest of his classes have also been approved to be in person now. 

“I’m very happy about it,” DeNicco said. “ I’m going to treat the class almost as a hybrid so those that are not comfortable in class don’t need to be there.”

According to DeNicco, the process to have his petition approved was very fast and easy.

“I am not sure, but it basically seems like it is up to the instructor’s discretion,” DeNicco said.

DesRoches said that the administration has received around 55 petitions thus far, all of which were approved.

“We have two types of petition requests. One for larger classes that request to be in person, and for smaller classes that request to be online,” DesRoches said. “The [latter] is based on having underlying health issues or someone at home with those issues and goes to HR.  For the former, those requests come to me and are routed to Davide Tenney to ensure that the registrar notes that the classes are now going to be in person.”

DesRoches said that the administration will continue to review petitions and make decisions based on what’s best for everyone’s health, safety and academic success.

Teddy Hubbard, a Wiess College freshman, said that he was disappointed to receive the news that three of his classes will remain online.

“I know it’s necessary and it’s probably the best move, but I can’t help but be bummed about it,” Hubbard said. “It’s a lot harder to connect with people over Zoom, and it’s easier to let your mind wander during online class.”

Riley Meve, a Will Rice College junior, said that she feels bad that underclassmen are still unable to experience a normal semester.

“Fortunately, I’m a third year humanities student with all classes under 50 students … Upperclassmen with less popular majors are the most privileged in this situation,” Meve said. “I understand why we should not have students on top of one another in lecture halls with the Delta variant spreading. On the other hand, I doubt COVID will easily spread in classes in which all students are masked.”

President David Leebron said the administration knows students value in person classes and makes decisions recognizing that fact.

“Our campus has been, and remains, much safer than appeared when we made the decision on the basis of available information to delay in person classes for two weeks,” Leebron said. “We will make further adjustments rapidly as is appropriate in light of the data.”

Johns-Krull said that the university is trying to do its best to both balance the very real concerns about safety and also the very real concerns about students wanting to be in the classroom.

“The overwhelming response that we’ve gotten from students is they very much want to be in the classrooms,” Johns-Krull said. “So we’re trying to tread a very thin line and may have to make adjustments along the way.”

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