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Should You Be Able to Opt Out Even if You Are Not in a Risk Category?

Some kinds of jobs, such as teaching, can potentially be performed either in person or online. But if schools don’t offer all teachers the option of working from home, then who will be granted that privilege and how will that be decided?

The issue has gotten a fair amount of attention lately as it pertains to higher education. Colleges and universities are on the cusp of reopening for the fall term. According to data published in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago (July 29, 2020), nearly a quarter of the colleges and universities in the U.S. (23.5%) are planning to have courses that convene primarily or fully in person. Another 16% will use a hybrid model, with some in-person teaching and some online teaching.

Plenty of faculty members are scared. They don’t want to take the risk of getting infected by the students in their classrooms. A spate of articles has appeared, expressing their concerns. Some professors have a spouse whose health, disability, or age puts them at special risk for contracting the virus; they don’t want to bring COVID home to them. Others have sick children and worry about them. Still others are caregivers for vulnerable relatives.

The faculty members worry about themselves, too. If they have conditions that render them particularly susceptible to the coronavirus, they have made that known in their writings or social media posts, or in conversations with reporters.

They are scrambling to find ways to justify staying home and teaching remotely, and still get paid. Sometimes their issues are covered by existing laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Most often, though, they are not. In those cases, it is up to college and university officials to decide who will be allowed to teach remotely.

Single People Often Care for Others, but Those People Aren’t Valued as Much as Spouses

My concern is for professors who are not married, especially if they also do not have kids. Research shows that unmarried adults do a disproportionate amount of the work of caring for aging parents and other people who need help over an extended period of time. But if they are caring for a cousin or sibling or friend, will they be taken as seriously as someone who is caring for a spouse? In laws such as FMLA, those categories aren’t covered at all.

Some professors may be scared enough to consider not showing up, even if that puts their pay or even their job at risk. That’s a more daunting option if you are unmarried, though – you don’t have the possibility of back-up income from a spouse.

Why Should You Have to Disclose Personal Medical Information?

Another issue that is not specific to single people is privacy. Why should anyone have to disclose personal medical information about the people in their lives, or about themselves, in order to be allowed to teach online? It is an argument that is gaining traction, as the New York Times pointed out:

“Many professors are calling for a sweeping no-questions-asked policy for those who want to teach remotely, saying that anything less is a violation of their privacy and their family’s privacy.”

However, those demands do not always result in the desired action. As the Times added:

“But many universities are turning to their human resources departments to make decisions case by case.”

If Decisions Are a Matter of Personal Judgment, Single People Are in Trouble

For single people, case by case decision-making is disturbing. We already know that the stereotype that single people “don’t have anyone” is pervasive, and that it is internalized even by some people in the helping and medical professions. We also know that single people are considered less worthy of life-saving transplants. Are they really going to get fair consideration from the personnel in human resources?

Suppose you are a single person who is not caring for another vulnerable person. Suppose, too, that you are not in any of the categories recognized as putting you at special risk for contracting COVID-19. Does that mean that your concerns about your health should not matter? I’m at risk because of my age, but even if I were younger, I don’t think I would want to take the chance of being exposed. No one is totally immune.

I agree with the professors who want a no-questions-asked policy. No one should have to justify wanting to be cautious when the risks include disease and even death.

Other Workers Are in Much More Difficult Positions

College professors are privileged. They are paid well, and they have some bargaining power – especially if they are tenured. Many other people on college campuses, such as staff, custodians, and food service workers, have little choice about showing up if they want to get paid. Beyond college campuses are millions of other workers who have minimal say in the conditions of their employment even if they are described as “essential.”

Are the unmarried workers in all those jobs treated less fairly than the married ones? My guess is yes – they, too, are subject to singlism. But it is the elite workers, such as the university professors and the professional athletes, whose opt-out dilemmas are getting spotlighted. They are the ones who have dilemmas. Too often, the other workers only have mandates.

[This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here.]

Should You Be Able to Opt Out Even if You Are Not in a Risk Category?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2020). Should You Be Able to Opt Out Even if You Are Not in a Risk Category?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Aug 2020
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