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University reopenings amid pandemic spark faculty, staff backlash

University reopenings amid pandemic spark faculty, staff backlash
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Universities planning to move forward with in-person classes are sparking backlash from faculty and staff who fear the plans are inadequate and will lead to COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

Over the summer, faculty groups and staff unions have been pressing for more stringent testing plans, safer working conditions and more influence in the decision-making process.

Now, with schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill having switched to online learning after clusters of COVID-19 on campus, faculty and staff efforts have taken on a new urgency.

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Interviews with nearly a dozen faculty and staff members at state schools in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina revealed an overwhelming sense of fear and a suspicion that administrators and regents are putting the profits of underfunded state schools above the safety of those they teach and employ.

“When it boils down to why we are in this situation, it seems to be one of simple math where profits are being prioritized above people’s lives, above the dignity of workers, above the health and safety of workers,” said Justin Simpson, a graduate worker at the University of Georgia and co-chair of the UGA chapter of the United Campus Workers of Georgia.

At the University of Georgia, classes began Thursday after a long summer of die-ins, petitions and faculty letters.

Late last month, faculty from the university’s college of arts and sciences and the college of early education passed a resolution slamming the university’s reopening plan. They called plans to test 300 individuals per day at a school with enrollment near 40,000 students and more than 11,000 employees “inadequate” and expressed frustration over the inability of faculty and staff to make their own decisions regarding working remotely without penalty and not creating guidelines for what would trigger a campus closure. 

Through a spokesperson, the University System of Georgia said the system is committed to protecting students, faculty and staff, but that additional revenue losses beyond the projected $350 million already lost this spring and summer could result in job losses. The revenue decline stems from housing and dining refunds, as well as canceled rentals for university venues.

“Protecting health and safety is essential, but there are additional risks associated with an online-only education – both to the academic progress of students as well financial risks to campus programs that support them,” USG spokesperson Aaron Diamant said in a statement to The Hill.

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Joe Fu, a mathematics professor at UGA who helped write the resolution, is left only with anger at the lack of administrative support. While he received accommodations to teach online, his girlfriend, an art instructor who will be teaching studio classes in-person, has purchased a hazmat suit to protect herself from a situation Fu believes the university could have circumvented by at least offering expanded testing, more data and having closure plans in place, if not beginning the year online.

“It’s mind-bogglingly unacceptable,” Fu said. “I can’t state that strongly enough. Inadequate information, no guidelines for closing. What on earth? We’re walking into a furnace.”

For staff, that fear can be even more pronounced.

At UNC Chapel Hill, four student residences and two fraternity houses have reported COVID-19 clusters, or spaces where there have been five or more cases in close proximity. The school’s positivity rate last week was 13.6 percent, and its dashboard has been updated to reveal 135 new cases were reported during that period.

“I’m scared to go into the bathrooms to clean,” said Jermany Alston, a housekeeper at UNC Chapel Hill and a member of UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers’ Union.

Three housekeepers interviewed by The Hill were clear in their blame: Administrators and the University of North Carolina System, the school’s governing body, could have taken preventative steps like testing students upon arrival, reducing capacity at dorms or beginning the school year online, a move endorsed by faculty, staff, students and the local county health department.

Alston said that by reopening, UNC Chapel Hill forced staff to choose between their jobs and their safety, as well as the health of their families. But with bills to pay, she said many were essentially forced to return to work.

Tracy Harter, another housekeeper and union member, said the decision to reopen reeks of financial concern. The announcement that the school was moving online came less than two hours before the semester’s tuition deadline.

“To me, it was just a ploy to be able to generate money that they can keep,” Harter said. “I understand this is a business, but this is a business that involves people.”

On its reopening site, the university said testing everyone upon arrival could have created a “false sense of security.”

In North Carolina, 17 faculty members at schools across the state have filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the UNC System to force it to temporarily abandon reopening plans and move to online classes on the basis that the system is not living up to its legal obligation to ensure a safe workplace for employees. UE Local 150 decided to join the lawsuit after the situation in Chapel Hill.

Sara Leopold, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said after a summer of protests, petitions and communications with the UNC System’s legal team failed to yield a resolution, her clients felt a lawsuit was “the only remaining option.”

At Appalachian State University, part of the UNC System, the faculty passed resolutions squarely placing the blame for any illness or death that could occur as a result of reopening on the school’s chancellor and on the UNC System’s Board of Governors and a vote of no confidence in the chancellor’s abilities.

Michael Behrent, the president of Appalachian State’s Faculty Senate, said one of the most frustrating aspects of the situation was the clear lack of campus autonomy in decision making. Professors have found out about case outbreaks through the media rather than from administrators and have been unable to influence the reopening plan in a meaningful way, both because he feels their opinions have not been sought out and because the board of governors exerts so much control over the universities.

The governing board has become more political since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010. No self-identified Democrats sit on the board, which includes former Republican state legislators, even though it was bipartisan when Democrats were in the majority.

With President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE pushing for universities to continue reopening as recently as Wednesday, political pressure on Republicans to pursue reopening is mounting.

“There is this complete partisan control of the UNC System,” Behrent said. “I do very much think that the decision to reopen is an aspect of, or has been shaped by, the broader partisan divide that COVID-19 has created, and that we’ve seen at the national level in recent months.”

The UNC System did not respond to a request for comment.

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In Georgia, where each member of the Board of Regents has been appointed by a Republican governor and multiple but not all members have served in GOP administrations, Diamant said the Republican Party’s stance does not affect members' decisions.

Finally, faculty have been frustrated by a lack of flexibility in deciding to teach in-person that they say implicitly discriminates against those without tenure.

At Arizona State University, more than 500 faculty, staff and students, under the banner ASU Coalition of Care, signed a letter to administrators urging a reconsideration of the accommodations process. Currently, students can opt out of in-person classes, but faculty and staff have to file an accommodations request to do so.

“Supervisors should not be asking employees for health-related information or making determinations based on their family status,” the letter read. “Administration should not be pressuring, implicitly or explicitly, faculty and staff into making decisions that endanger their health to benefit the university.”

ASU, a leader in online education, began in-person classes Thursday.

Leah Sarat, an ASU professor and letter signatory, said the fact that non-tenured and contract professors were willing to sign the letter shows how significant their concerns are. By placing the onus to ask for accommodations on the individual rather than offering blanket protection to all faculty and staff, especially with the potential of layoffs, the university is not truly protecting the safety of everyone, she said.

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“You’re asking people who may already be in rather contingent positions to divulge sensitive data about themselves,” Sarat said. “They don’t know who’s reading these — supervisors, deans.”

An ASU spokesman told The Hill that 95 percent of non-ADA accommodations requests have been granted for applications that don’t involve the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Behrent, of Appalachian State, said the situation at UNC Chapel Hill and other schools is vindicating the concerns of faculty and staff, albeit at a cost they hoped to avoid.

“The question was just constantly, why on earth, administrators, do you think we’re not going to close soon after reopening?” Behrent said. “How can this not bring a spread? The questions are either unanswered or dodged or we got a lot of platitudes about making the best of a bad situation.”