Dangers of return to in-person classes remain unmitigated, experts say

By Kendall Polidori, Co-editor-in-chief

A panel of experts offer science-based information about the reality of returning to in-person school instruction during a pandemic and why they believe remote instruction is the safe choice. Courtesy/Columbia College Chicago

Three days ago Columbia had nearly 50% of Fall 2020 semester courses listed under in-person instruction and had what some considered insufficient ventilation for buildings in place. But as of Tuesday, the college announced strides in rethinking the semester’s course schedule, and one faculty leader, who had previously floated the possibility of a strike if in-person learning was not suspended, noted positive movement by the college.

The college also announced on Tuesday, Aug. 4 the updating some of the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems in nine of its buildings.

“This is all very positive and a movement in the right direction, and it’s moving to meet the collective demands of everybody represented here tonight,” said Diana Vallera, president of CFAC and an adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department, during a Tuesday, Aug. 4 Illinois Federation of Teachers virtual town hall, which was held over Zoom and open to all faculty, students and their families.

Co-hosted by CFAC, Columbia’s part-time faculty union, the town hall featured four expert guest panelists: Shweta Bansal, associate professor of biology at Georgetown University; William J. Mills, associate professor at the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Northern Illinois University; Sheila Simons, professor and graduate coordinator at Eastern Illinois University; and Gabriel E. Guzman, professor of microbiology and chairperson of the Science Department at Triton College.

More than 40 higher education institutions were represented at the town hall, according to Vallera, and more than 200 people tuned in to hear a presentation from Bansal and ask the panelists questions regarding a safe and equitable return to school campuses.

The town hall comes after the Illinois Federation of Teachers—a statewide organization made up of more than 200 local unions throughout Illinois—released a list of demands for a safe campus reopening in the fall, including an entirely remote-learning platform “with few exceptions,” as reported by the Chronicle July 24.

On Wednesday, July 29, IFT released a joint statement with the Illinois Education Association stating both organizations are willing to strike if schools do not meet their demands, as reported by the Chronicle Friday, July 31.

IFT also started a petition with a list of demands to keep campuses safe targeting college and university administrations and boards, the Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. J.B. Pritzker. As of publication Wednesday, Aug. 5, the petition has 582 signatures out of a goal of 800.

With a list of demands for all Illinois institutions, University Professionals of Illinois President John Miller acknowledged at the virtual town hall that everyone’s situation is different and a plan for a safe reopening is not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Miller said the work the unions are doing to demand remote instruction or a safe and proper return to campus is having an impact, but everyone must continue to “put the pressure on.”

In just over an hour in length, the town hall panel provided science-based information and recommendations on the reality of “going back to school mid-pandemic.”


During her presentation, Bansal said institutions are falling short in reopening plans because they are focusing on how they should open, rather than asking themselves “Should we open?”

Bansal said while she joins faculty members in missing students, she has not been able to ignore the realities of the coronavirus, including: high transmission potential through direct contact, the air and objects; a long incubation period, which makes contact tracing difficult; the range of symptoms; and the ability of transmission before symptoms even appear.

“All of these characteristics really make it a true challenge to track and respond to this infection,” Bansal said.

Simons said properly testing and tracing is a challenge for a variety of reasons, including relying on individuals to adhere to guidelines. She said she has “great concerns” about schools meeting in-person for the fall and putting too many risks into play.

Bansal said in order for institutions to perform adequate testing, they would have to test every single person in the community and do so ideally every three days. A test turnaround should take no longer than three days, she said, and with high false-negative rates, 40% of positive cases “fall through the cracks.”

“Universities should really minimize on-campus student presence and provide an online education,” Bansal said.


While all institutions have differing policies on opting-out of in-person instruction, Columbia currently requires faculty who want to opt-out to go through an accommodation process to be made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, as reported by the Chronicle Friday, July 31.

If students want to opt-out of courses listed under in-person instruction, they will have to change their schedule and sign up for courses listed under web instruction.

Bansal said requiring faculty to go through the accommodation process is unfair because it usually requires people to provide a clear evidence-based explanation of why the accommodation is needed. As of right now, there is no way of providing evidence in the case of the coronavirus because several factors can determine who is most at risk for severe outcomes, she said.

Vallera said everyone must have a choice over their own health and this includes all students, faculty and staff.


Bansal said although social distancing helps, being indoors for classes is highly dangerous and increases the possibility of transmission.

Mills said the coronavirus is airborne and the installation of high-grade HEPA or High Efficiency Particulate Air filters is necessary. He said ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) technology—which is what Columbia is installing—is well established but will require a “sufficient dose” to make a difference.

For the best outcome, Mills recommends installing various smaller HEPA filters in classrooms, rather than one large one, because then there will be an adequate airflow within the room.


Vallera said CFAC and IFT will continue to accept questions from all students, faculty and staff for the panelists to answer, and will post them at a later date.

As for determining what to do for the fall, Bansal said most universities are allowing students to make their own decisions about returning to campus.

“Please take that very seriously, take that as a chance to protect your own health,” Bansal said. “If you feel that your institution isn’t taking the right steps—frankly, most are not—then stay where you are safe and participate in an online education.”