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College in Grant Park? Columbia faculty move classes outdoors amid dispute over coronavirus protections

Dozens of Columbia students find themselves dancing across Grant Park’s lawn rather than indoors after faculty union and school fail to meet safety agreement.

Laura Sturm speaks with students during her theater class at Grant park on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Part-Time Faculty at Columbia College are asking for safer guidelines against COVID-19 in the classroom.
Laura Sturm speaks with students during her theater class at Grant park on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Part-Time Faculty at Columbia College are asking for safer guidelines against COVID-19 in the classroom.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Columbia College instructors and students have been forced to trade-in their state of the art dance and theater facilities for Grant Park’s greenways and concrete walkways over a dispute about coronavirus protections.

After the college’s part-time faculty union, Columbia Faculty Association Local 6602, and school officials failed to come to a safety agreement for the fall semester, several faculty members decided to hold classes outdoors at 11th Street and Michigan Avenue rather than in classrooms that did not meet their safety expectations.

Last week the union filed an unfair labor practices charge against the school over coronavirus-related concerns. The union wants portable air purifiers in all classrooms where in-person instruction will take place, while the college said it’ll only take that precaution where “science shows there is a higher potential of risk,” like in classes that require singing, playing a musical instrument or dancing, according to Lambrini Lukidis, Columbia’s associate vice president for strategic communications.

Students in a Theater Foundations class at Columbia College rehearse an assigned performance at Grant park on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.
Students in a Theater Foundations class at Columbia College rehearse an assigned performance at Grant park on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

On Tuesday, dozens of students danced across the park’s lawn and held improv acting workshops along the walkways as park-goers shuffled through the crowds. Though far from ideal, for many students and faculty members the opportunity to return to in-person classes, even held outdoors, was a much-needed return to normalcy.

Sean Sturdivant, 19, says that outdoor classes are “way better” than virtual classes because he can interact with his peers again. When classes first transitioned to a virtual format last spring, the second-year musical theatre major said he struggled to stay engaged and keep up with the material because the arts are simply not conducive to online learning. He noticed many students stopped engaging online due to various problems like slow internet or computer glitches.

But for some Columbia students, particularly those new on campus, taking part in performance classes outdoors can be uncomfortable.

“I’d rather struggle indoors in a room where I know I can build my confidence ... instead of in public where we have people watching and taking pictures,” says first-year student Nia Bradley, 18.

Bradley says she has also struggled to adjust because she has to balance both in-person and virtual classes. Currently, about 75 percent of Columbia’s classes are virtual, which makes it easier to neglect some classes over others, she says.

Laura Sturm began teaching theater classes at Columbia just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit, so most of her teaching experience at the school has been unconventional so far, she said. Although wearing masks and maintaining social distance makes her job a little more difficult, she say it’s worth it as long as student learning is not disrupted.

While being outside works now, that will be impossible in the coming months.

“I understand that cash is a challenge, but safety is the most important thing,” says Sturm. “If some people start getting sick, that’s a serious problem and it’ll only get worse as the weather changes.”

However, union president Diana Vallera hopes that outdoor learning won’t have to continue that long. She believes the shift to outdoor learning will signal to the school that failing to meet expected health standards hurts everyone involved. She expects that both sides will be able to come to an agreement within the next week.