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Why large classes are continuing in-person meetings during the pandemic

<p>Connel Fullenkamp, professor of the practice of economics, teaches Economics 101 in the Griffith Film Theater Aug. 17.</p>

Connel Fullenkamp, professor of the practice of economics, teaches Economics 101 in the Griffith Film Theater Aug. 17.

Three times a week, 80 students, sporting face masks and keeping dutiful six-foot distances from their peers, file into the Bryan Center’s Griffith Film Theater for an Economics 101 lecture.

Out of the 278 students enrolled in the gateway economics course this semester, only 40 opted for permanent online instruction. The remaining students have been assigned one day of the week—Monday, Wednesday or Friday—that they can physically attend class in cohorts of 80 people. 

The framework accommodates Griffith’s standard capacity restrictions, according to Connel Fullenkamp, director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of economics.

Econ 101, taught by Fullenkamp, is one of several in-person classes this semester whose large size has baffled members of the Duke community.

With state public health rules limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25, the University’s decision to host large in-person classes poses a seeming contrast to COVID-19 regulations.

In an email to The Chronicle, Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis explained the apparent paradox.

“Educational institutions are specifically exempt from state rules about ‘indoor gatherings,’” Francis wrote. 

According to an FAQ document for Phase 2 of North Carolina’s reopening plan, the exemption was intended to “allow educational institutions the ability to gather more individuals together on their premises if necessary to support planning for summer learning and for the 2020-2021 school year.” It does not allow for large events like graduation ceremonies.

In deciding whether Duke would host in-person classes of any size, the University considered variables including the “spread of infection, rates of positive testing and mortality locally, regionally and nationally, population differences in these rates including age, race, and pre-existing conditions, and daily updates on research about the virus,” Francis explained.

Duke also considered which precautionary measures could be taken to “de-densify” the campus, implementing several forms of testing, restricting large gatherings on campus, educating the community about the virus and brainstorming “ongoing collaborations” between the Duke Health System and local Durham government and community, Francis added.

After Duke established the necessary conditions to allow in-person classes, faculty members were given the opportunity to choose between in-person, online or hybrid modes of instruction.

“Part of the reason I stay in this business is because I really enjoy the live contact,” Fullenkamp said, describing his personal decision to conduct Econ 101 in-person. “It’s good for you pedagogically, it’s good for you intellectually, it’s good for you emotionally to be there in person and make human connection.” 

Although he acknowledged the risk of transmission that any in-person gathering may present, Fullenkamp said that the University’s strict safety protocols and widespread student compliance has made him feel very safe in his classroom.  

Computer Science 201 is another course that hosts large in-person classes, in this case Monday and Wednesday in Page Auditorium. Students who did not register for the completely online lecture had the option to register for two different lecture options: one that meets in-person Monday and over Zoom Wednesday, or vice versa. In-person attendance is not mandatory for any lecture.

Duke’s extensive classroom safety measures are the product of careful thought and close collaboration between the Provost’s Office and Human Resources, the Facilities Management Department and the Office of Environmental Controls. Such procedures include enforcing “social distancing (seats/desks 6-feet apart), masking, cleaning, ventilation, ability to exit and enter without lines,” and controlling the capacity and configuration of the classrooms, Francis wrote.

Duke’s neighboring institutions, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, have already transitioned to online instruction in response to coronavirus clusters, underscoring  that students and faculty must operate cautiously and within their individual spheres of comfort.

Regardless of the University’s safeguards, Fullenkamp recognized that the decision to enter a classroom is personal for students and faculty alike and expressed his respect for people who do not choose to enter classrooms this fall. 

“I only want people to come to class if they are comfortable doing that,” Fullenkamp said. 

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