BOONE — More than 200 faculty at Appalachian State University are calling to move all possible courses online until vaccinations rates increase and COVID-19 transmission rates decrease.
The petition, which was delivered to Chancellor Sheri Everts and Provost Heather Norris among other App State officials on Aug. 26 via email, has 214 faculty signatures. App State had 1,396 faculty in 2020, according to the university.
The petition wants online classes where possible until the vaccination rate for students is above 70 percent and the community level COVID-19 transmission in Watauga County is less than 5 percent.
App State reports that 51 percent of students and 88 percent of faculty are vaccinated as of Aug. 30.
Emily Dakin, a social work faculty member and one of the creators of the petition, said the petition came about when the chancellor first announced that only 47 percent of App State students had acknowledged they were fully vaccinated.
“I can say to people that I’ve talked with, and I’ve talked to a number of people, that the vaccination rate was received with great concern,” Dakin said. “I was really surprised. I kind of entered the classroom thinking most of my students were vaccinated so the classroom was probably relatively safe. I was surprised by that and extremely concerned.”
Dakin said that a number of faculty were talking and growing concerned, which led to the petition. The thought would be encouraging vaccination by pivoting to online classes.
“For me this isn’t in the spirit of like us against administration, it’s more us trying to provide a voice that administration can use to express the desires of the faculty and to advocate for us,” Dakin said. “They can’t advocate for us if they don’t know what we want and what we’re calling for and if they don’t know how we’re feeling. We want this to be something that will help the administration, and help them to help us.”
She also said another concern was that she knows more and more people who are getting sick, which is concerning to her since she has a 4-year-old who can’t get vaccinated.
Rising cases and community spread was also a concern for Lynn Siefferman, another creator of the petition and a member of the biology faculty. She said her main motivations for the petition were for the safety of the student body and the instructors and staff on campus.
“The timing of the rise of the Delta (variant of COVID-19) is unfortunate because it gave the university less ability to plan because it became so prevalent later in the summer,” Siefferman said. “I feel like the decisions that were made in hindsight are now quite unsafe to have students on campus and in large classrooms without social distancing in place in the classroom.”
In response to the petition, App State spokesperson Megan Hayes said the chancellor and provost are working with faculty “through mutually established processes with a shared goal of prioritizing the safety and health of the App State community and fulfilling the primary educational mission of the university.”
According to Hayes, the majority of faculty are teaching in person. Employees who need a disability accommodation due to health-related concerns are able to complete an accommodation request, which is reviewed confidentially on a case-by-case basis by the Office of Disability Resources.
“As someone who has battled cancer in the last year, I am in a medical category for which additional COVID-prevention precautions are recommended,” Everts said in an Aug. 27 email to campus. “While getting my booster vaccine this week, my thoughts turned — with heartfelt appreciation — to everyone who has become fully vaccinated or is in the process of becoming fully vaccinated. Every single vaccinated person contributes to a safer face-to-face learning environment for the entire Appalachian community.”
Employees have above an 85 percent vaccination rate as of Aug. 23, according to App State. Dakin said she understands the App State administration has a lot of challenges in trying to navigate the pandemic and are limited as far as their autonomy and authority to some of the issues.
“The single most effective tool we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is the vaccine, which the university offers for students, faculty and staff every day,” Hayes said. “Information about vaccines, the benefits of getting vaccinated and incentives for doing so are provided to campus multiple times each week.”
Hayes also said the university is taking other precautions like face coverings being required in all indoor locations; enhanced cleaning procedures; hand sanitizer stations have been placed throughout campus, including at each elevator and in every classroom; and face shields and clear face coverings being provided to departments upon request for any faculty member who wishes to use them while actively teaching.
Dakin said she knows that shifting to online classes would be frustrating to many students as she also wants to be in person because she loves being with her students directly.
“I understand their frustration,” Dakin said. “I would say I would use any frustration that they have to try to encourage their friends to get vaccinated.”
Both Siefferman and Dakin think App State students can get to a 70 percent vaccination rate.
“I think one of the main reasons they’re not vaccinated is because it is not something that has been demanded of them,” Siefferman said.
Siefferman said if there were negative consequences put in place for not having been vaccinated, it might encourage more vaccinations.
“I’d really like to see a mandate for vaccination just like there are mandates for other vaccinations for infectious diseases that have been around a lot longer,” Siefferman said. “But that didn’t seem to be a practical approach to our petition, given that we recognize that the administration on campus doesn’t necessarily have the power to make those demands.”
If nothing else, Dakin said she hopes the petition would serve as a message to students that faculty were “pleading with our student body to please protect themselves and protect everyone else.”
“There are a lot of people spending a lot of time trying to work on this petition, and it’s all coming from the spirit of wanting to protect everyone in our community and including our students,” Dakin said.
The full petition can be found at tinyurl.com/mwcdb9mm.