So far there have been no reports of a USC professor testing positive for COVID-19. But as the virus continues to spread through the summer and into the fall, the chance will increase, whether classes are conducted online or in-person.
Not everyone who contracts the virus will have a serious enough case to need an extended period of time off work. But some will. And professors disproportionately occupy the “high risk” age bracket, putting them at a higher risk for more serious illness or even death.
A Twitter thread started by an English professor at the University of Illinois shows that universities around the world are coming up with contingency plans to ensure course continuity in the event a professor is unable to teach. But it’s not clear if USC is doing the same.
USC’s COVID-19 resource center instructs employees with symptoms or who test positive to contact their healthcare provider and notify the university via a hotline, but does not specify what happens to their courses.
A representative from the USC Public Relations Office was unable to provide a clear answer as to whether there is a university-wide plan to ensure course continuity. She referred to the faculty handbook, which states that “a faculty member who is absent because of illness for a brief period should make arrangements through his or her department chair to see that his or her teaching and other responsibilities are met.”
Teachers across the university described various states of preparedness for this possibility, although all were confident that they or their colleagues could step up if needed.
Nelesh Tiruviluamala, assistant professor of mathematics, doesn’t believe the issue has officially come up during department meetings. But he cited times in the past when colleagues had to take extended time off for bereavement or other emergencies.
“Generally during those times it’s understood that other colleagues will step in and cover the courses,” said Tiruviluamala, who explained he feels prepared to take on this responsibility if necessary.
He said most professors in his department should be able to take over any of the others’ classes if needed, a sentiment echoed by Geza Bottlik, associate professor of engineering practice and the director of the MS in Engineering Management program.
“The university hasn’t really said anything about what to do with replacement if somebody actually gets sick,” Bottlik said. “As far as the undergraduate classes are concerned, all of us are pretty much prepared to teach all of the classes.”
James Leonetti, adjunct professor of accounting, and his colleagues have taken preparations into their own hands. “I’ve given two other professors access to my classes and they’ve been following along,” he said. “I’ve had them TA. If they were to lose their class I could immediately step in and grade their work.”
Additionally, all three have given an assistant dean access to their course materials. Leonetti said he prepared online finals several weeks ago to ensure that she will be able to administer them even if he’s incapacitated.
Of course, there are limits to how many courses colleagues can cover. “If one or two professors came down with coronavirus, it would be difficult to deal with but I don’t think it would be disastrous,” Tiruviluamala said, although he’d be concerned about his sick coworkers.
More than a few sick professors would be a different story though, especially for smaller departments. “It can’t all happen at once,” he said.
As the university weighs the risks of returning to campus in the fall, it would be easy for professors to focus on risks to themselves. But above all, professors expressed concern for their students – their education and their health.
Bottlik was especially concerned for Viterbi’s large international student body. “If this continues into the fall, they won’t be able to actually get here,” he said.
Leonetti lamented the challenges faced by students enrolled in online classes, including the loss of personal connection. “It’s so hard for the students to stay focused,” he said. “And it breaks my heart for the seniors.”
Despite the lack of guidance on course continuity, Leonetti praised the school of accounting for its handling of a very challenging situation.
“I think the Levanthal school has done a fantastic job and continues to be very focused on meeting the needs of whatever situation we’re going to be faced with in the fall,” he said. “So I’m very confident about that.”
Likewise, Bottlik praised the university’s response as a whole, calling it “excellent.”
Tiruviluamala was also appreciative of USC’s support. “Right now I think they get a B or an A from my standpoint,” he said, citing USC’s responsiveness to departmental requests such as loaning professors iPads to aid in instruction.
As plans for the fall semester remain in flux, it remains to be seen whether professors will continue to feel supported and prepared for the challenges ahead.
Tiruviluamala expressed hope that the university will meet those challenges with flexibility, perhaps spacing out classes in large lecture halls or having hybrid instruction in order to meet fewer days a week, depending on medical and governmental guidance.
“I hope we can make the best out of whatever we can.”