BY DOMINIC PINO OPINION EDITOR
The university is targeting 75 percent in-person instruction in the fall. Janette Muir, the associate provost for academic initiatives and services, told me in an email, “We are preparing to move furniture back into the classroom and be at 75% capacity for the fall. While there are still unknowns, we are staying very positive and planning for the best scenarios.”
In a year where it has felt like we’ve only been planning for the worst scenarios, this was encouraging to hear.
This semester, individual faculty members had much of the say in whether their classes would be in person or virtual. The faculty-first approach led to a lot of virtual classes, even for smaller classes that could have safely been held in person in accordance with Virginia and federal government guidelines.
I emailed every dean of every college or school on Friday and asked them one simple question: Does your college or school commit to 75 percent in-person instruction for the fall semester, or will it be left up to individual faculty members?
Here’s what they said.
We’ll start with the ones who did commit to the university’s goal of 75 percent in-person instruction.
College of Science
Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm wrote: “In our current planning, we are definitely committed to meeting or exceeding the university’s goal of 75% of classes having an in-person instruction component, either fully in person or in a hybrid format. We also look forward to having as many classes as possible in a person-to-person format, with the goal of returning to pre-pandemic class conditions as much as possible. I should point out that before the pandemic, we operated many of our class offerings in a hybrid format, so I think that post-pandemic operations will look remarkably similar to those prior to March of 2020.
“Having said this, I think it is worth noting that the process between now and fall is bound to [be] somewhat uncertain because of a variety of reasons (vaccinations, new strains of the virus and how people respond to this evolving situation). Into all of this planning and decision-making, the college will strive to provide a working environment that meets that safety of our community of scholars.”
Volgenau School of Engineering
Dean Kenneth Ball wrote: “Absolutely, the Volgenau School of Engineering is committed to meeting or exceeding the university’s goal of 75% of classes having an in-person instruction component, either fully in person or with a hybrid format. We would prefer having as many classes as possible in a completely in-person format, with the goal of returning to pre-pandemic class formats as much as possible. Our ability to do so depends on many factors, such as the availability of classrooms for scheduling, which is controlled centrally at the university level. We anticipate that there will continue to be a reduced seating capacity in classrooms to maintain social distancing, but hopefully with less restrictive requirements. Most importantly, though, our progress towards returning more fully to campus depends on our progress in reducing COVID-19 infection rates and keeping both the Mason and surrounding communities safe and healthy. To that end, I encourage every student, faculty and staff member to remain vigilant and adhere to all university policies, including completing the Mason Daily Health Check every day, wearing facemasks and practicing social distancing. Also, I encourage everyone to get a COVID vaccine as soon as they are able.”
College of Health and Human Services
Senior Associate Dean Robert Weiler, responding on behalf of Dean Germaine Louis, wrote: “CHHS is committed to reaching the University’s current target of 75% capacity for on-campus classroom instruction. CHHS is eager to bring students safely back to campus to engage in the full life of the university and to deliver a robust program of courses to our students.”
Louis also responded to me, saying, “We are all ready to return campus to the new norm and to do whatever we can to make it a great experience for all students. I miss the vibrancy of a college campus, so I’m looking forward to the leadership’s guidance in our continuing efforts for a safe return to campus.”
Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution
Associate Dean Juliette Shedd, responding on behalf of Dean Alpaslan Özerdem, wrote: “The Carter School schedule we are submitting for fall  expands upon the in-person options we had throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. We plan to offer in-person and online options for our required classes, and a mix of modalities for elective courses. Our fall undergraduate schedule should meet the guidance of 75% in person capacity. Our graduate courses schedule is different. Pre-pandemic we already had a substantial amount of our students completely online for their master’s level programs. Our expectation on the graduate programs side is that our schedule will be close to our pre-pandemic mix of in-person and online courses.”
Other deans did not expressly commit to 75 percent in-person instruction but were generally positive about the prospects of classes being mostly in-person in the fall. Their responses follow.
College of Visual and Performing Arts
Dean Rick Davis wrote: “In the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA), we have been on the front lines of innovation in adapting to teaching and learning during the pandemic, both in the in-person mode (with technologies such as the School of Dance’s ‘Window Wall’) and with enhanced digital experiences across our academic units and public-facing programs (such as ‘Mason Arts at Home’). We look forward to a robust return to campus-based teaching, rehearsing, performance and exhibition this fall, consistent with the university’s guidance and in full recognition of the evolving science of risk mitigation. It’s important that students, faculty and staff feel both safe and comfortable when we return, so that the creative spark of the classroom, studio, gallery and stage is free to take wing in a confident atmosphere. I feel very good at this point about our ability to make that happen in a way that supports the university’s goals for physical presence, and delivers the best possible experience for our students.”
College of Education and Human Development
Dean Robert Baker wrote: “The College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) is making every attempt, in alignment with University policies, to have a much broader on-campus presence in the 2021-2022 academic year. Holding the health and safety of our students, staff and faculty paramount in response to the pandemic, CEHD has been providing both traditional and virtual opportunities over the 2020-2021 academic year. I will note that CEHD offered 75% of its instruction in face-to-face and hybrid format in fall 2019, before the pandemic, so achieving that number would suggest a return to pre-pandemic normalcy for our College. I cannot predict what fall will look like in that regard, but what I can say is that CEHD supports an increased physical presence on campus through face-to-face and hybrid course offerings.”
School of Business
Dean Maury Peiperl wrote: “I’m proud to say that the School of Business knows a thing or two about operating classes during the pandemic as we’ve been a university leader in this space. In fact, we had some of the highest numbers of in-person and hybrid classes across all of Mason’s schools and colleges during both fall 2020 and spring 2021. Looking forward to next year, the School of Business is planning on increased in-person instruction and academic services for the fall 2021 semester so that any student who wants a fully in-person experience can have one. At the same time, we are applying the knowledge we’ve gained during the pandemic to continue enhancing our online courses — making them more accessible to a broader, more diverse population of students; and ensuring students’ satisfaction, be it in person or online.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future of higher education. Our classrooms continue to be one of the safest places for everyone because of the social distancing measures in place, yet we must remain vigilant in our efforts so that our classrooms continue to be virus-free. While we’re all looking forward to getting back, our new normal must apply the lessons from the past 12 months; chiefly among them, the health and safety of our Mason Nation.”
Finally, some deans seemed to believe the decision was completely above them, or they avoided answering the question directly. Their responses follow.
Schar School of Policy and Government
Dean Mark Rozell wrote: “The ultimate decision is above my level and it depends on balancing many factors including — and especially — protecting the health and safety of the Mason and broader communities.
“Assuming we all are vaccinated by August and the virus spread largely is under control, I expect there will be a very robust return to campus by the Mason community, which is what we all very much want to happen. The university has done a remarkably admirable job at maintaining educational continuity under very challenging circumstances, but no one wants to go on like this forever. Most likely we will have a combination of class formats, with some online, some hybrid, but the vast majority on campus — as long as it is deemed safe to do so. Trust me, I want nothing more than to get back in person and see my students, colleagues, staff, alumni, and the many others I interact with professionally. My colleagues in the Schar School all feel the same way. We are itching to get back to some level of ‘normal.’”
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Dean Ann Ardis wrote: “CHSS is looking forward to a robust return to campus-based teaching and research activities in fall 2021 — assuming of course that Mason’s leadership determines it is safe to do so!
“Many of my college’s faculty had little to no prior experience teaching online before the pandemic, and they have worked extraordinarily hard this past year to redesign their courses for online or blended/hybrid delivery. A ‘silver lining’ discovery for us has been the realization that there is more graduate student interest in online courses than we had recognized or planned for pre-pandemic. And that undergraduate adult learners who are juggling full-time jobs and complex family responsibilities also appreciate having the flexibility of online and blended/hybrid course offerings.
“Our departments and interdisciplinary programs are very committed to sustaining CHSS’s long-standing strengths in on-campus high-impact learning opportunities, through courses that satisfy Mason Core requirements as well as required and elective courses for our own majors and minors. Departmental leadership teams are doing three-year enrollment and course planning across all modalities of instruction (face-to-face, blended/hybrid, fully online) in order to meet all of our students’ needs and degree-completion goals.”
Dean Zofia Burr wrote: “Many of us share your sense of uncertainty about what the fall semester will bring. As you observe, decisions and announcements about Mason’s plan for face-to-face classes are led out of the Offices of the President and Provost. Given this, I will have to refer you to those offices for more information about fall plans and how they will be implemented.”
Overall, the responses were encouraging. But if we want to make sure faculty put students first in the fall, we need to let them know now.
After a slow start, the vaccination rate is accelerating nationwide. Executives from vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna told Congress on Feb. 23 that the U.S. should have three million doses available per day by April. Reuters projects that 75 percent of Americans will have received at least one dose of the vaccine by August 2021.
The name of each person mentioned in this article is hyperlinked to their university profile page, which includes their contact information. I would encourage you to find your college or school and drop a note to your dean. I emailed all of them, and they’re all friendly. First, thank him or her. This pandemic has been hard on everyone, perhaps especially for those in leadership positions.
But also be sure to remind your dean why you came to Mason. Chances are it wasn’t to take online classes. And chances are you’d be much more satisfied paying your tuition for the fall knowing ahead of time that most, if not all, of your classes would be available in person. Online college educations are available for a lot less than Mason is charging.
Our university has done an excellent job containing virus spread in its population. Our country has developed multiple vaccines in record time and is ramping up administering them. Now, as students, we need to speak up with one voice about next semester.
It’s time to get back in the classroom.