ACS Guidelines Adjusted for COVID-19 to Maximize Student Safety
Programs to retain approval status amidst pandemic-related changes
By Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society
As students, faculty and administrators across the U.S. grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, chemistry department chairs are scrambling to adapt and keep students, faculty, and staff safe. In-person lab hours, departmental budgets, departmental staffing and low enrollment numbers spell uncertainty for the future.
When it comes to American Chemical Society (ACS)-approved undergraduate programs, “Everyone’s really anxious and asking ‘Are we going to lose our approval because of safety-related policies enacted during the pandemic?’ … The short answer is ‘No’. ACS is being very flexible with approved programs in addressing their pandemic-related challenges.” said Michelle Brooks, Ph.D., Senior Manager for the ACS Approval Program. “There is no substitute for keeping students, faculty, and staff safe.”
In the wake of these changes, the ACS Committee for Professional Training formed a COVID-19 Quick Action Team. In March and again in June, the team released COVID-19 adjustments to the ACS Guidelines for approved undergraduate chemistry programs that are applicable through August 2021.
Committee member Scott Reid, Ph.D., of Marquette University calls the guidance “a first step, recognizing that this entire academic year will likely be affected by COVID,” emphasizing that program leaders should put student, faculty, and staff safety first.
If department chairs take away one thing from the updated guidelines, Reid said, it should be that “programs that are approved will not lose their approval because of any COVID adjustments made.” That means that labs can be taught virtually—so-called “kitchen experiments” are at the discretion of each program—so long as an entire college or university is operating virtually. Once campuses reopen without social distancing requirements, chemistry and laboratory skills courses must resume in-person, too.
Lab Skills and Grading
While ACS believes that certain skills are best taught in-person, no adaptation made in concert with a university’s overarching policies during the pandemic will cause programs to lose ACS program approval. The goal, according to Reid, is to afford program leaders the maximum latitude to do what works best for their students, along with keeping students, faculty, and staff safe and healthy.
So, must institutions planning to return to in-person instruction require students to make up missed requirements, such as laboratory hours? As with most of the guidance, the committee’s recommendation can be adapted by each department chairperson. In Reid’s case, the answer is no: “At our institution, there’s no plan for students to go back and complete something after the fact. If it’s virtual, it’s virtual.” Ultimately, each institution’s chairperson will decide what qualifies a student as eligible for graduation with ACS certification in the wake of COVID-19-related changes.
Laboratory hours, in particular, have been a source of numerous questions, Brooks said. “Currently, the guidelines require that certified students must spend 400 hours in a laboratory setting over the course of their degree program. That number has been controversial for a while and reaching 400 hours is going to be difficult to accomplish virtually.”
In these cases, department chairs can make their own decision; it is not strictly necessary to meet the 400-hour requirement, as long as the program certifies that the graduate has completed the ACS guidelines, as it existed during the pandemic.
This also applies to pass-fail coursework, which some colleges and universities are newly allowing. Here again, Reid said, flexibility dictated the committee’s decisions and resultant guidance.
“From our point of view, there’s a wide latitude within individual programs of what grades would be required for courses to count for a major,” he said. “Going to a pass/fail system, are we harming that enterprise? I don’t think so; every institution can determine what those qualifications are.”
Reid also noted that virtual learning does not necessarily detract from the curriculum: “I taught an introduction to chemistry sequence virtually, and I did things there I’ve never done before to try to give students every possible latitude to succeed. I don’t think we’re going to be graduating students without the full range of skills.”
In other words, ACS approves the program, which then has the power to certify individual students. That means that certified degrees can be granted in the absence of the typical number of in-person laboratory hour requirements being met, as well as with pass-fail course grading. Each department must decide for itself what is best for students and what fits within existing institutional policy.
Will students still be prepared?
Reid pointed out that ACS recognizes the entire school year will likely be impacted by the pandemic. With virtual learning, a near certainty of diminished lab hours for certain graduates, pass-fail grading on the table, and fewer faculty members, will chemistry majors still be prepared for life after graduation? Brooks says ACS-certified chemistry degree recipients will continue to be prepared for the workforce, even if they cannot fulfill past requirements.
“I think that what may happen is that students may be ‘less prepared’ in the lab. Honestly, if a [student] comes out and has missed a couple years of hands-on labs, that’s going to put a dent in their technical skill set, but most undergraduates entering industry are re-trained. If [students] are going into graduate programs, then the graduate programs will have to pick up some of that training.” She cited her own graduate training in physical chemistry, in which all students took a core math course to ensure the cohort would be prepared for more complex mathematics as the program progressed.
As the committee moves forward, its members plan to discuss longer-term issues related to staffing and potential budget cuts. What will happen if a program is unable to maintain or replace required equipment? What if a department simply can’t offer all the required courses?
Intent is important when it comes to departmental resources, Brooks said. She’s heard concerns about cuts to non-tenure track faculty and contract non-renewals. In the case of retirees who are not replaced, “As long as the department has plans to replace that person when they can, then we’re providing some leeway in the number of faculty members.”
Once again, short-term deviations from established guidelines are acceptable, particularly when a department’s chairperson can articulate a longer-term plan to re-establish compliance in the future.
The committee normally meets three times a year and has shifted to virtual meetings, with the next gathering in January 2021. Discussion topics will include longer-term impacts of the pandemic on undergraduate chemistry programs, as well as contact and lab hour requirements. Department heads can also contact the ACS office with specific questions and concerns, or to offer their own feedback.
“What I want to get across to the department chairs is, if you have questions, email us and let’s set up a meeting to discuss your situation and explore it more,” Brooks said.