UT faculty petition for mask mandates in class to ensure greater safety measures

Kaushiki Roy

Almost 800 University faculty signed a petition to allow for a mask and vaccine mandate on Aug. 11, after UT announced faculty could switch their classes partially or completely online just weeks before the first day of school.  

Patricia Maclachlan, who was one of the main creators of the petition, said she and other faculty members felt frustrated with the administration’s abrupt introduction of hybrid and virtual classes for the first three weeks of school. She said if they were allowed to enforce mask mandates, the teaching modes wouldn’t need to be changed. 

“I started receiving messages from the provost office about reduced-capacity teaching, and it just got me thinking that all of these efforts to give students an in-class experience (and) the acrobatics that we had to go through, were unnecessary if we were allowed to require our students to be masked,” Maclachlan, a government and Japanese studies professor, said.

Maclachlan said she wrote to the president and provost before starting the petition but did not receive any acknowledgement in response to her concerns. She said that having to create plans for virtual and in-person learning that will resume three weeks into the school year is difficult for faculty. 

“It’s frustrating that the University is limiting our ability to teach online and offline freely,” Maclachlan said. “We are basically playing it by ear.”

Lauren Nelson, an assistant instructor in the English department, said she signed the petition because she felt UT should have announced the option for hybrid classes sooner so staff could have enough time to adjust their courses.  

“Last spring, when UT announced that we will be returning to class in person, there was no contingency plan for exactly this kind of situation,” Nelson said. “For graduate students, there was never a choice of hybrid learning or online learning. I got a room assignment and a time assignment and it was sort of like the default back to normal.”

Iana Robitaille, a graduate student and assistant instructor of rhetoric, said the graduate student experience with hybrid teaching is much different than professors, sometimes requiring double the work. 

“We like to teach, we love teaching,” Robitaille said. “The hybrid format is frustrating for instructors. It means quite a bit more planning, and in some cases, double the work.”

Both Nelson and Robitaille said at the end of the day, they are excited about teaching in person but wish they had the freedom to ensure more precautionary measures for themselves and their students. 

“It’s hard for me and other instructors to balance the students’ excitement to return to in-person learning and our knowledge that it just isn’t safe to do so without more safety precautions,” Nelson said. “I’m a better teacher when I teach in person, but this is a time where we have to consider not just what’s best for our own personal health and safety but just the community at large.”