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Majority of classes return to in-person instruction this week and next

Aidan Colon/Thresher

By Savannah Kuchar     9/21/21 11:02pm

The majority of classes with 50 or more students will transition back to in-person learning between Sept. 20 and Sept. 27, following an email from the Office of the Provost announcing this return. Previously, courses with 50 or more students were kept online, even as other classes returned to in-person learning after the second week of the semester, according to an email from the Office of the Provost on Sept. 2.

The latest change, sent to the Rice community Thursday Sept. 16, comes in response to a decline in COVID-19 cases on campus, as well as a lack of evidence of transmission within the classroom. During the week of Sept. 13, 18 of the 6,400 tests on campus came back positive, according to Kevin Kirby, chair of the Crisis Management Committee, in his Sept. 20 COVID response weekly update.

In an email to the Thresher, Provost Reginald DesRoches said the decision was made with feedback from instructors, students and parents in mind.

“I consistently strive to get input from a broad scope of invested individuals when making decisions about course instruction,” DesRoches wrote. “I am in constant discussion with the university’s executive leadership team and our academic leaders.”

Rebecca Smith, an assistant teaching professor in computer science, said in an email that the announcement last week initially came as a surprise, though she understood the reasoning behind it. This fall, Smith is teaching COMP 215, an undergraduate course on program design, with over 50 students enrolled. 

“I’m encouraged to hear that there has been no classroom spread so far, and I hope that continues to be the case,” Smith said. “As long as it’s safe to do so, teaching in person is my preference.” 

According to last week’s email, instructors who wish to remain online for the remainder of the semester must submit a request to the Office of the Provost. DesRoches said so far, instructors of 12 courses with 50 or more students have made such a request and all have been granted the exemption.

In addition to these 12, some instructors had already petitioned to remain online for the semester, including senior lecturer Carissa Zimmerman, who said in an email she made the decision due to the spread of the Delta variant and the vaccination status of her six-year-old daughter, Amelia. 

“Though we recognize that the overall risk of Amelia catching COVID and being hospitalized is small, we believe it is still our responsibility to reduce that risk in every reasonable way that we can,” Zimmerman wrote.

Sarah Roberts, a Lovett College sophomore, said she is taking SOSC 302 with Zimmerman this fall, along with PSYC 203 with senior lecturer Ozge Gurcanli, who also made the request earlier in the semester to remain online. Roberts said that while she understands their decision, it was disappointing news.

“I know that decision was made because they have children, so it’s super understandable,” Roberts said. “My only reservation is, at the beginning of the school year they were comfortable with teaching in person, and now it’s frustrating to see that that’s changed. Obviously for very respectful reasons, but it was a little bit disappointing.”

Marek Kimmel, a professor in the statistics department, said he is looking forward to his course STAT 418/518, which has around 70 students currently enrolled, going back to in-person instruction, but is also wary of the change.

“I think that the return to teaching face to face is inevitable,” Kimmel said. “I hope that there will be no major outbreak on campus as a result of this change.”

Following the Sept. 2 announcement that kept large classes online, DesRoches said several instructors offered the large classrooms to others —  between Sept. 3 and 15, there were 131 classroom reassignments. According to DesRoches, as of last Friday, Sept. 17, 79 of these had been accommodated, though he said he expects this number to increase this and next week.

Smith said she anticipates it being a smooth return to an in-person format, and appreciated that faculty were given the flexibility to choose to return to in person instruction on either Sept. 20 or  Sept. 27. 

“I also appreciated the willingness of the staff over in the office of the Registrar to work with me to ensure that I would have the classrooms that I need to teach my classes in an active learning format,” Smith wrote.

DesRoches said the goal of the administration continues to be providing students a safe educational environment.

“We believe these conditions allow for safe in-person learning,” DesRoches wrote. “However, we will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus and in the community and make adjustments as needed.”

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