July 7, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

At just the moment some colleges and universities are making the decision to move all of their classes online during the fall semester and beyond, the federal government said students who are not taking classes in-person don’t need to be in the United States.

On Monday afternoon, Immigration and Customs Enforcement told international students that if their schools are going to teach all of their classes online, the students cannot enter the United States. If they are already here, they either have to go home or transfer to another school that is teaching in-person classes.  The order says:

The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.

The announcement came only hours after Harvard University and Princeton University announced they would allow some students on campus but others would be virtual learners for the next two semesters.

Freshmen and students who need academic help will arrive on the Harvard campus in about a month but all other Harvard students will take classes online in the fall and into spring 2021. In all, it means about 40% of the student body will be on campus in the fall.

Harvard is the nation’s oldest university and its decision may sway other schools to adjust their plans to move toward more virtual teaching as each day brings new signs of a rising COVID-19 problem.

“Harvard was built for connection, not isolation. Without a vaccine or effective clinical treatments for the virus, we know that no choice that reopens the campus is without risk,” the school said in a post. “That said, we have worked closely with leading epidemiologists and medical experts to define an approach that we believe will protect the health and safety of our community, while also protecting our academic enterprise and providing students with the conditions they need to be successful academically.”

NJ.com reported that Princeton University will tell half its students to stay home in the fall, the other half in the spring:

Princeton University announced Monday that undergraduates will be able to return to campus for one semester during the 2020-21 academic year — freshman and juniors in the fall and sophomores and seniors in the spring — though most instruction will remain online due to ongoing coronavirus concerns.

By the way, Harvard, like many schools, is not cutting tuition or fees for virtual classes. The Harvard Crimson noted:

The steady tuition fees come as students across the country — including some at Harvard — file class action suits demanding lowered tuition for virtual learning, and as universities face significant financial challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

George Washington University just announced its fall plans. One thing that will raise some objections is a requirement for all faculty, staff and students to get a flu shot.

The University of Florida delayed the announcement of its fall plans until July 10 because of a new surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida. The school is trying to figure out whether it needs to change its plans to teach more classes virtually.

If schools open, will teachers come?

About three-quarters of colleges and universities have said they plan to reopen in one fashion or another this fall. “Plan” may be the operative word. In addition to all of the issues about how to safely house students and keep classrooms clean, professors are starting to tell their bosses they may not show up this fall.

A New York Times story reported:

A Cornell University survey of its faculty found that about one-third were “not interested in teaching classes in person,” one-third were “open to doing it if conditions were deemed to be safe,” and about one-third were “willing and anxious to teach in person,” said Michael Kotlikoff, Cornell’s provost.

Faculty members at institutions including Penn State, the University of Illinois, Notre Dame and the State University of New York have signed petitions complaining that they are not being consulted and are being pushed back into classrooms too fast.

Not only are some professors in high-risk age groups for COVID-19, but many also are caring for children. In an especially bone-headed announcement, one school told faculty that if they are caring for children at home, they could not be teaching at the same time. Florida State University changed its tune once the announcement hit social media.

Faculty, being an independent bunch, are demanding that the schools leave it up to individual teachers to make decisions about whether to teach remotely or not, which may not sit well with university leaders. A thousand Penn State faculty members signed a letter to their bosses with a series of demands:

The university will affirm the autonomy of instructors in deciding whether to teach classes, attend meetings, and hold office hours remotely, in-person, or in some hybrid mode. Staff should also have the option of working remotely. Instructors will be able to alter the mode of course delivery at any time if they deem it necessary for their own safety or the safety of their students; no one will be obligated to disclose personal health information as a justification for such decisions, and they will not face negative repercussions from the university or supervisors. We say this as faculty who firmly believe in the importance of the university as a physical site of face-to-face dialogue and debate, and we look forward to the moment when such measures are no longer necessary.

The Penn State educators pushed for financial security, too, and said they want to be sure that they would not have pay cuts or be laid off no matter what happens to enrollment:

The university will extend fixed-term faculty contracts through the 2020-2021 year at a salary equal to or exceeding the faculty member’s 2019-2020 contract, and it will maintain full employment, pay, raises, and benefits for all faculty and staff (including administrative, custodial, and maintenance staff). If classes fail to meet the minimum enrollment, the university will either allow these smaller classes to run, or it will assign faculty other important tasks such as curriculum design and program-building. The university will also maintain (or raise) all pre-pandemic levels of funding for graduate employees, and in light of the pandemic’s effects on their research and working conditions, it will guarantee a yearlong extension of funding to current graduate students whose progress has been impacted.

Thousands of university jobs have been lost already

The Penn State faculty petition makes sense when you consider what the Chronicle of Higher Education just reported:

The Chronicle has identified 224 institutions associated with a layoff, a furlough, or a contract nonrenewal resulting from Covid-19. At least 51,793 employees in academe are known to have been affected by those actions.

(Data and graphic from the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Overall crime is down, while murder is up so far in 2020

If you wait for the federal government to calculate where we stand on crime, you will wait more than a year, which is why you probably will have to do the calculations yourself if you want to see whether the national trends track in your community. Murder is way up in many cities across America. Maybe nowhere is it more apparent than in Chicago.

The Chicago Sun-Times checked the numbers halfway through 2020:

Six months into the year, 329 people have been killed in Chicago, an increase of about 34% from the 246 homicides during the same period last year, according to police. Shootings in that period rose by about 42%, from 978 in 2019 to 1,384 in 2020.

The New York Times pulled mid-year data from 14 metro areas around the country and summarized what it found:

Overall crime is down 5.3 percent in 25 large American cities relative to the same period in 2019, with violent crime down 2 percent.

But murder in these 25 cities is up 16.1 percent in relation to last year. It’s not just a handful of cities driving this change, either. Property crime is down in 18 of the 25 sampled cities, and violent crime is down in 11 of them, but murder is up in 20 of the cities.

It is certainly not a consistent trend across the country. St. Louis’ homicides are tracking lower than this time in recent years.

It is worthwhile and fair to remind ourselves that comparing year-to-year data is not always as instructive as it might seem. Go back a decade or two and you will see that big cities have seen a big drop in murders from the peak.

I would push you to ask a few questions:

  • What do we know about motives for murders in a pandemic
  • What percentage of homicides in your city are unsolved this year? It is not unusual for half or more of all murders to be unsolved in U.S. metro areas. According to the most recent FBI “Crime in the United States” report, only 45% of violent crimes lead to arrest and prosecution.
  • Do more shooters and victims know each other as opposed to being strangers?
  • How much of the rise is related to domestic violence while people are cooped up together?
  • Where are the murders happening and what can you find out about how police patrols are adjusting to the increase?
  • How are pared-down city budgets addressing these mid-year figures?

Priorities then and now

Go back and look at your mayor and governor’s state of the city and state of the state speeches before the pandemic. What were the priorities then and what are they now with budgets dried up and so much changed? Here is a calculation of the percentage of time spent on each of these topics by mayors in their state of the city speeches between January and April of this year.

(Data and graphic from a League of Cities survey of 131 state of the city speeches by mayors across America)

Follow up on protester arrests

Marketplace, the public radio business news program, followed up on what happened to all of the people arrested in the wake of George Floyd’s death. By one estimate, 10,000 people were arrested nationwide. The charges ranged from failure to disperse, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and curfew violations.  Marketplace said a lot of cases have been represented for free by lawyers who have donated services. But:

Though it varies widely case by case, city by city, courtroom by courtroom, “a simple protest can get somebody anywhere between $10,000 to $12,000 just to resolve it favorably, where they walk out having completed community service, and do not leave with anything that permanently is on their record,” said Charles Tucker Jr., managing partner with Tucker Moore Group, LLP in Maryland who is representing a number of protesters pro bono. That figure includes attorney’s fees.

Asian Americans are the targets of COVID-19 discrimination

President Donald Trump blames China for the COVID-19 pandemic nearly every time he talks about it. At the same time, Asian Americans said they have felt discrimination during the pandemic at rates higher than any other racial group. Pew Research found:

For many, especially Black and Asian Americans, the effects of COVID-19 extend beyond medical and financial concerns. About four-in-ten Black and Asian adults say people have acted as if they were uncomfortable around them because of their race or ethnicity since the beginning of the outbreak, and similar shares say they worry that other people might be suspicious of them if they wear a mask when out in public, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

(Data and graphic from the Pew Research Center)

Why networks and local TV stations are frantically trying to salvage the football season

You could probably guess that the NFL and, to a lesser extent, college football are important for local and network TV. But until you see this data from The Washington Post, you might not know how important they actually are. The Post explained why salvaging a football season from COVID-19 shutdowns is vital for broadcasters:

(Data and graphic from The Washington Post)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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