University of Kansas professor Gregory Cushman appears at a rally dressed as a plague doctor, a prop he sometimes uses in class. He thinks he contracted COVID-19 while teaching at KU. Courtesy Photo.

In late summer, Gregory Cushman came down with a severe case of COVID-19 that left him fatigued and sick for four months. 

He feels certain he knows where and when he got it: during the first week of fall semester classes at the University of Kansas, as he presented his three-hour history of disease graduate seminar in a lecture hall on campus.

Five days after his first and only lecture of the semester, Cushman, an associate professor of environmental history, showed COVID-19 symptoms. Other than that class, he’d limited his contacts to immediate family.

“I really regretted ever doing that class,” Cushman said. Members of his family subsequently contracted the virus from him, as did his fiancee, who also teaches at KU.

“I never would have taught that class if not for the pressure coming from my employer,” he said. “The message we got was, ‘Please go teach face to face, because that’s what students want.’” 

Throughout the fall and winter, as COVID-19 cases in Kansas and Missouri climbed, flattened and, recently, started to drop, many colleges and universities have encouraged faculty to teach on campus. Students want the in-class experience, leaders say. And college administrations, reeling from cuts in state aid and the financial shocks of the pandemic, need the students’ tuition.

But the only certain way to prevent infection or serious illness from COVID-19 is with a vaccine. And for higher education employees in Kansas and Missouri, that could still be months away.

‘High risk to become superspreaders’

While a few states, including California, Nebraska and West Virginia, have given higher education staff and teachers the same priority as K-12 teachers and support workers, most have not. 

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly’s distribution order does not assign a priority to higher education employees. Those who don’t yet qualify for a vaccine because of age, health conditions or other factors will have to wait until doses become available to the general public. 

Missouri’s vaccine rollout plan puts higher education employees in the second of three phases. Early education and K-12 teachers are in the third tier of phase 1B. 

College students are less likely than some other groups to become seriously ill or die from the virus. But COVID-19 cases and deaths in cities where colleges are located spiked when students returned to campus last fall. 

“College campuses are at high risk to become superspreaders,” researchers concluded in a recent study based on a computer model by scientists at Stanford University. 

The study, which was published Jan. 13, cited 90 reported deaths on campuses, based on a New York Times tracker last updated in December. Most of the deaths involved employees, not students.

The number of deaths is likely higher. No government agency or academic group tracks COVID-19 deaths among university and college employees. Disclosures generally occur in news releases from the schools — or in obituaries.

Balancing COVID-19 safety without vaccines

Mark Richter was known at KU and throughout Lawrence for his research in molecular biosciences, his Australian accent and his love for games. He helped found the Lawrence Adult Soccer League. He died of COVID-19 on Dec. 26 at age 69.

The same day, longtime Pittsburg State University history professor Stephen Harmon, 75, also died of the virus. He specialized in African and Middle East history and was known for befriending international students. He had planned to retire in May.

Both professors taught their fall classes online, the universities reported. But their deaths highlight the delicate balance schools face in protecting staff while offering the fullest possible education to students.

Many professors are older and at higher risk to become seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. Yet many universities have even more in-person spring semester classes and plan full reopenings in the fall.

In a letter to faculty last summer, KU Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer was candid about the administration’s urgency to return to in-person learning.

“Our most important work now is to get our students back in classes and making progress this fall — and not simply because our mission and passion is education,” she wrote. “Honestly, tuition income is the single lever over which we have greatest control, and it is our best strategy for financial recovery now.” 

Christian Basi, a spokesman for the University of Missouri System, said leaders are aiming for campuses in Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis and Rolla to be fully open for the fall semester.

“We are planning for that based on the information that vaccines will be widely available,” he said.

College professors a lower COVID-19 vaccine priority

Vaccine distribution is rolling out slowly in Missouri and Kansas, and efforts to move higher education faculty and staffers up on the priority schedules have not succeeded.

“The university has had many conversations with policymakers in Topeka, and they are not inclined to change their stance at this time,” KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said.

Lisa Cox, communications director for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the state’s vaccine priorities were designed with specific goals. Saving lives is at the top, and “accelerating economic recovery” is another factor.

“When K-12 is fully open, not only are kids back in school, but parents are also able to more easily get to work,” Cox said in an email. “Higher education does not share the same dynamics that come with the involvement of young children, and virtual learning opportunities become more easily obtainable at the higher education level.”

From left, University of Missouri juniors Devon Terry, Sydney Greenfield and MaryRose Ornosky eat food and hang out at Jesse Hall on Tuesday Nov. 10, 2020, on MU’s campus. When the sun set, the three students departed separately. Jacob Moscovitch/The Beacon

Even some people within higher education agree that child care workers and K-12 teachers and employees should get their shots ahead of faculty and staffers at colleges and universities.

“I think definitely K-12 should have priority,” said Tom Mardikes, a theater professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is chair of UMKC’s faculty senate but said he was speaking for himself and not the group. 

Mardikes noted that teachers in elementary and secondary schools are with students all day, often in close quarters.

“When I go into a class, I go for an hour or two, then I leave and I go home,” he said.

Mardikes said he thinks UMKC has done a good job of keeping students and teachers safe with protective and sanitizing equipment and distancing measures. In one class, he teaches 25 students in a room designed for 150.

“If possible, they want us to come in and lecture to students,” Mardikes said. “And I can tell the students really like it.”

Angst at University of Kansas over COVID-19 safety

At KU, though, some professors are worried about safety and at odds with the administration over the reported number of COVID-19 cases. 

A university dashboard shows fewer than 1,700 positive test results among students and staff from Aug. 1 through late February — a test positivity rate of less than 3%.

“As we have stated publicly multiple times over the past several months, there have been no known cases of transmission within our classrooms and no county-declared outbreaks stemming from KU events,” Barcomb-Peterson said in an email. 

But professors cast doubt on that assertion. 

“I personally know of a few who did get COVID, and they believe they contracted it in the classroom,” said Nick Syrett, professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at KU.

“Lots and lots of students got sick, too,” said Cushman, who thinks he contracted the virus in class. “None of us think KU kept a very good track of it.” 

At KU, the faculty’s stress was magnified recently when the Kansas Board of Regents approved a policy that gives university administrations more leeway to fire employees, including tenured professors, as a way to cope with “the extreme financial pressures” created by the pandemic.

Leaders of five of the state’s six public universities quickly said they had no intention of salvaging their budgets with widespread staff cuts. KU, however, left the option open.

“I’m not yet inclined to say we will need the tool they provided, and I am ready to do the work necessary to avoid it, but I’m also not yet able to say we won’t need the tool,” Bichelmeyer said in a message to employees. 

Dozens of academic and faculty groups from around the nation have joined more than 1,000 KU staffers in protesting the proposed cost-saving measure. 

“Tenure is really the bedrock of how universities operate,” Syrett said. “It surprised me that our university did not see how this would be really adverse to our reputation as a research university.”

At a rally on campus in early February, Cushman dressed as a Medieval plague doctor — a prop he uses in his “history of disease” class — and captured the angst with a colorful sign. “KU gave me COVID, now wants to fire me,” it said.

His bout with COVID-19 has made Cushman wary of returning to the classroom without a vaccine. He researches diseases and is worried that the emergence of COVID-19 variants could lead to reinfections.

He said he is frustrated both by the low vaccine priority that he and his colleagues are assigned by the state of Kansas and by the administration’s pressure to teach in person in the pandemic.

“Before COVID, many of us had little experience teaching in purely online circumstances, but we figured out how to do it, and how to do it well,” Cushman said. “The idea that students are getting an inferior education by not being in person is simply not true.” 

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Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter for The Beacon.