FAYETTEVILLE -- Faculty members at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville this fall will largely decide whether to grant any requests from students to attend class remotely rather than in person, said Charles Robinson, UA's interim chancellor.
"That's the difference between this year and last year," Robinson said Monday, speaking alongside a panel of top UA administrators to answer covid-19 questions from students, staffers and faculty members.
A full return to face-to-face classes is set to begin next Monday with the start of UA's fall semester. Covid-19 hospitalizations in Arkansas have zoomed to highs not previously seen during the pandemic, but UA and other large universities in the state have announced plans for much more in-person teaching and learning this fall than a year earlier.
UA in the 2020-21 year "gave the students the right to choose to be remote" for individual classes, Robinson said.
This year, "we're saying you don't have that right," Robinson said of such student requests.
"The faculty member decides that now," Robinson said, though there will be exceptions. Bill Kincaid, UA's managing associate general counsel, said students may request accommodations for a disability, calling such requests "a different situation."
Monday marked the start of Robinson's tenure as interim chancellor as he takes over from Kincaid, who served as acting chancellor after the June resignation of Joe Steinmetz.
Terry Martin, UA's interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the university is "primarily a face-to-face, in-person" campus.
Last fall included a return of some in-person classes after the abrupt shift in the 2020 spring semester. UA and other colleges switched to online-only instruction after the first cases of covid-19 in the state.
But last fall and earlier this year, many students at UA opted to participate in classes remotely, greatly diminishing the student presence on campus.
UA last fall recorded a large majority of its courses, with some taking on a hybrid format allowing for remote participation in class discussions.
This fall, faculty members and instructors are making such decisions for each class, and faculty members also will decide on attendance policies.
"We did ask the faculty to consider being lenient because we don't want students coming to class sick," Martin said.
UA, as well as other large public universities, last week announced indoor masking requirements, doing so days after an order from a Pulaski County circuit judge that temporarily blocks the state's law that bans mask mandates.
Legislators in April passed Act 1002, legislation prohibiting state-supported universities, public schools and state agencies -- as well as any state or local official -- from requiring face coverings. The temporary injunction blocking the law is in place pending the outcome of a court challenge.
UA announced its indoor masking requirement on Wednesday, hours after action taken by its board of trustees directing campuses in the UA System to implement face-covering policies.
"We have the power to institute mask mandates for our campus buildings, which we did quite readily after receiving that [trustees'] resolution. And we're very thankful for that," Robinson said.
Martin said the mandate is in place "until further notice," with UA to consider pandemic conditions during the fall semester. Kincaid said guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which were cited in the trustees' resolution, will also factor into any campus decisions about masking.
Faculty members and instructors at UA should report any students in their classes not complying with the indoor mask mandate, said Melissa Harwood-Rom, UA's interim vice chancellor for student affairs.
"Students should be asked to comply. Give every effort to encourage that student to comply. But if that student does not comply, that student should be reported to the university's conduct office," Harwood-Rom said.
The panel drew about 25 in-person viewers, while Robinson at the beginning of the forum said more than 300 were watching online. Audience members asked questions to the panel.
Renette McCargo, an instructor in UA's School of Journalism and Strategic Media, was among those attending in person.
McCargo taught remotely the previous academic year and will be teaching more than 80 students in a classroom this fall, she said.
While she has some concerns about covid-19 for herself and for her students, "I also understand that the students, as well as myself, are eager to get back in the classroom," McCargo said.
The switch to remote instruction earlier in the pandemic was done to keep everyone safe, she said. Yet students were left to deal with depression and stress, McCargo said.
McCargo said the experience of students in the past year will factor into their compliance with the indoor mask mandate.
"I think it's going to be fairly easy because they want to be here. They want to have that college experience," McCargo said.