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HyFlex doesn’t solve the problem—it just shifts it (opinion)

By ThisIsReno

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

Submitted by William J. Macauley, Jr.

I am of course concerned about COVID-19 exposure and safety on campus. I have been extremely concerned from the start about “HyFlex” (hybrid + flexibility), the university’s response to our pandemic and reopening (which is starting this week), especially considering the accumulating adjustments necessary to make it work (space issues, student monitoring of Zoom chats during in-person classes, cleaning/disinfecting responsibilities that will shorten classes . . . ).

HyFlex continues to collect impediments that will compromise the quality of our students’ learning, not to mention put us all at unnecessary and avoidable health risk.

In short, it seems as though folks least impacted by these decisions are not acknowledging or understanding what this will mean for the rest of us. I am particularly concerned for the bulk of our students who do not live in the dorms, who have to work their way through college, and who have to commute to campus individually or in groups (which I think is about 73% of our students).

I understand that we all want to get back to campus. Seeing my students in person is a gift. I am not sure those making decisions about how we do that can fully appreciate the price this specific approach will exact disproportionately on those whose engagements with the campus are not from within executive offices, on those who don’t work from behind a phalanx of administrative staff and from behind the closed doors they control within a building removed from the traffic of campus.

Only a handful of campus participants have the luxury of reserved parking spaces right outside of the buildings in which they work. The vast majority of us don’t work in buildings that see so little pedestrian traffic compared with classroom buildings, campus hubs, and dorms.

UNR Campus. Image: Trevor Bexon
UNR campus in March after it closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Trevor Bexon

This does not feel like the kind of unified community celebrated in so many messages during spring 2020 semester, when we had to adjust on the fly; it feels like decision-making above most of our pay grades. HyFlex has become the singular end rather than a means to be considered along with others. Dedication to HyFlex should instead be a dedication to finding best (and probably varied) solutions, instead of ‘we decided, now you figure out how to make it work.’ I am concerned that the experts the university hired to teach and conduct research at UNR have been largely informed afterward but not adequately included in these decisions.

I am even more concerned because these decisions disproportionately and significantly impact campus community members, faculty and staff and students, whose campus engagements fall outside of the environs from which this decision is being argued.

Only about 27% of UNR students live on campus, from what the UNR website suggests. The students who don’t live on campus will be victimized by this approach. From my perspective, HyFlex is biased against students who don’t live on campus, the actual majority of students, students who must work sometimes multiple jobs to stay in school, who are ‘nontraditional’ (although I challenge the validity of that label at a land-grant university like UNR). For what it’s worth, neither do faculty nor all but a handful of staff live on campus, either.

HyFlex interferes with the opportunities UNR should provide to all students.

Parking permits now cost just under $300 for daytime student parking of anything other than motorcycles. When students can afford campus parking, and are lucky enough to get permits, they too often have to park far enough away from their classes and labs that they spend more time walking between their cars and their classes than they do actually within their classes. HyFlex implementation discussions thus far seem to be whittling away at in-person, in-class time, too.

And so many of our students’ time is extremely precious and pressurized by numerous demands; they juggle school, jobs, family, studying, rent, bills, groceries. For these students, campus labs and academic support resources will be even farther out of reach because they will have less access and less time, especially if occupancies are limited and congregating disallowed. Where will they go/be when some of their classes are meeting in-person on a given day and others are not? What is the quality of what likely will be rushed and over-scheduled classes? How much attention will they be able to pay within their in-person classes when they are worrying about $20 parking tickets and getting back to their carpool pickup points in time? How will they be able to focus on learning when they will be surrounded by masked class participants whose faces they may never actually see?

But, before they actually get to the classroom, they have other significant hurdles. Parking permits have become extremely expensive; campus bus services were unreliable before they were dramatically reduced last year. And the metered parking on campus too often requires arriving early, waiting and waiting, and hoping for a space to open up early enough to allow for the often excessively long walk to class, all while parking is too often reduced significantly for events/meetings, not infrequently way in advance of the actual events.

empty school lecture hall
An empty lecture hall. Image: Changbok Ko on Unsplash

Students who have to share rides to and from campus will not be able to leave and come back when one or two of their classes is in-person and the others are not. These students will congregate on campus because so many of them will have to—they won’t be in class because they are part of the online cohort that day, but they won’t be able to leave campus, either, because their rides don’t leave or come back to campus until much later in the day. These students are wise enough to know that leaving and arriving on campus repeatedly is not feasible for a number of reasons, so attendance may decline substantially, which means that the students required to attend class in-person, in the classroom, will not only be missing their opportunities but removing those options for others. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

But these issues are not just impacting students, and they’re not just about parking. These challenges are just as prevalent and restrictive for underpaid staff, for contingent faculty who are freeway-flyers, and even for continuing faculty who can’t afford or sometimes even get parking permits anywhere near their workspaces. These conditions put us all at greater risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission.

HyFlex doesn’t solve the problem—it just shifts it.

HyFlex is problematic, as to varying degrees would be any response, and I know that university leadership is trying to do the best things they can for the university and its participants. I trust President Johnson. What troubles me is there is only one option on the table, which turns HyFlex from being a means to its being an end. And HyFlex presently is the only option regardless of gubernatorial phase.

The bulk of our students and significant portions of our staff and faculty are already struggling with operationalizing this selection, and the push for in-person, in-the-classroom experiences here via HyFlex is continuing to reduce that time in place. The conditions HyFlex creates will add to stress on campus, which reduces our immune capabilities as individuals and increases infection risks for all of us, not to mention reducing the capacity for learning. Students will have to congregate on campus, if they can find a way to be there safely at all. If they can’t find ways to be on campus under these conditions, they will struggle unnecessarily with student monitors of their questions and comments via Zoom during in-person classes.

No solution is perfect, of course, but one this fraught is worthy of reconsideration. UNR is filled with very smart people. If so much of the conversation about HyFlex has focused on how to opt out, that may suggest that HyFlex is not the best solution. It certainly isn’t the only one.

None of us have a lot of say in where on campus we work, and that’s why we should be applying every bit of expertise and situated knowledge we have to make decisions reflective of the conditions for the many. I hope I am wrong. I hope COVID-19 does actually just disappear. I hope we are through the pandemic by the time we start fall classes. I hope that the students, faculty, and staff who are starting this week in HyFlex will not be infected. I also hope to be taller and better looking.

We should be making reopening decisions together that consider the exposures that all will have, even if we individually won’t have all of them ourselves. HyFlex was an option to consider and seek to adapt, but it isn’t the only available option, cannot be the goal, and can’t be presented as a solution when so little of the “how to” has been worked out.

William J. (Bill) Macauley, Jr. is a professor of English at UNR. Bill and his family relocated to Reno from Ohio nine years ago. Originally from New Rochelle, NY, Bill has been teaching college writing and English for more than 30 years, most recently offering workshops in writing, mindfulness, and meditation. Ironically, his first publication was as an undergraduate in 1985, an op-ed for his college newspaper that also advocated for commuter students.

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

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