PSC wants ‘safe return’
As CUNY prepares for in-person learning this Fall, the union is mobilizing to address unanswered concerns about COVID-19 health procedures and building infrastructure safety at campuses across all five boroughs. At a recent New York City Council hearing in June, faculty, staff and students questioned the readiness of CUNY administration and its plans to keep workers and students safe in the face of COVID-19 and other unknown factors, such as the more contagious Delta variant now responsible for the bulk of new infections in the United States. Read some of the highlights from their testimonies below.
A gradual return is a safe return
To be safe, our transition back to in-person work needs to be gradual, and it needs to be handled with transparency. We love our students and our mission. That’s what gets us going every morning. But we love our families too, so our own health is paramount. Transparency from our administration will not only build confidence among the faculty and staff in the safety of the workplace, it will make safety possible. We will be able to ask informed questions and request remediation of facilities that require it. We will not send our members into unsafe offices, labs or classrooms.
We have taken steps to minimize risks to our members. We developed clear safety standards, so members can follow the science. We negotiated a Remote Work Agreement with CUNY so that staff who can perform their jobs effectively off-site may continue to do so. We negotiated a preoccupancy walk-through protocol, so that PSC representatives can accompany engineers and administrators, checking ventilation and other key indicators. Our Health & Safety Committee has trained nearly 150 members to conduct those walk-throughs with management. And we undertook a campaign to free federal stimulus funds from bureaucracy at the state and university levels, so repairs and upgrades can be completed before we return in large numbers.
Nevertheless, we are concerned because many facilities have suffered from years of neglect and deferred maintenance. CUNY’s record in this regard has been uneven and sometimes dismal or even dangerous. Many of us want to return to campus, but we need vigilance from the administration, not here and there, but on each campus and in every facility. CUNY must provide our members with accurate data and timely responses to questions and concerns.
Remember our libraries
When CUNY classes moved online in March 2020, the libraries were initially kept open and librarians reported having to bring their own hand soap to work so they could practice proper hygiene as frontline workers. CUNY libraries are high-traffic spaces where students congregate, often in groups, for several hours at a time, and library staff work in close contact with them at service desks.
CUNY library workers often have decades of experience working in these crumbling facilities. There is little faith left in general statements about a building being “safe.” We have learned to ask for proof. We want details about how our spaces have been prepared for a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to keep our communities safe. We believe that our students deserve the same precautionary measures already in place at other New York City libraries and we want to ensure all CUNY students have equitable resource access regardless of campus affiliation. Some materials are simply not available as e-books, and students often prefer to use print. We must not lose sight of the urgent need to provide safe access to our libraries’ print collections.
At my own campus, the Graduate Center, librarians have been working for six months to restart onsite services, but CUNY will not provide the information we need to do it safely. We’ve asked for details about the ventilation and are told that data is unavailable because the library is closed. How are we supposed to prepare operations in spaces before we know those spaces can be used safely? At every turn, the Graduate Center has told us to wait: to wait for policy from CUNY Central, to wait for new guidance, to wait because they just don’t have the information to move forward.
Yet after months of denying us this basic information, the Graduate Center suddenly moved to open a student study space in the library and gave librarians just five working days notice. When the PSC Environmental Health & Safety Committee was finally allowed to conduct a walk-through, we were not given access to any of the shared offices used by library staff. Further, CUNY’s representative stated that they were not bound to any HVAC best practice recommendations, and we actually had to argue that COVID-19 is a recognized hazard and that reducing indoor concentrations of the virus is achieved through improved ventilation. We should not have to fight over these simple facts. CUNY repeatedly assures workers that spaces have been checked and are “safe,” but will block access to any details or proof that improvements have been made. Where there should be community engagement and transparency, CUNY has opted for secrecy and stalling. It does not have to be this way.
Dissertation Research Librarian
The Graduate Center
A view from the Bronx
Diane Price Banks
Let me start by providing an example of problems pre-pandemic and during the pandemic that have created deep health and safety concerns at the Bronx Community College (BCC) campus specific to ventilation and COVID-19.
In 2018, Havemeyer Annex was shut down prior to the pandemic after the union highlighted poor ventilation and poor air quality that led to employees getting sick. It was well documented by members of the administration that the air quality was poor in that building, yet it took union involvement to get the building shut down.
Colston Hall was shut down due to poor heating of the pipes, which caused 68 pipes to burst and flood the building in January 2020. In addition, this building is also operating with a system that brings in fresh air that’s mixed with the existing air. If working properly, the mixed air is filtered, heated or cooled, but is not the ventilation system recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) for classroom capacities, and thus can be a mixing ground for COVID-19 transmission.
Faculty who worked a full year on the Reoccupancy Committee were asked to volunteer during their 2021 contractual leave, which commenced from June 1–August 23, yet all other non-faculty members of this committee continue to be compensated. BCC administration claimed the total of $2,000 needed to pay faculty for services rendered during the summer was not available despite CARES Act funding being set aside for this very reason. This has caused a lack of representation of faculty on the Reoccupancy Committee as it relates to instructional stakeholders returning to work.
Currently, due to the 60% in-person mandate by the chancellor, PSC members at BCC are being asked to return to work in buildings that do not have an HVAC system and asked to work with students in these very buildings. Poor ventilation is a breeding ground for the transmission of COVID as any viral particles in the air can linger for days and be a source of infection. An alleged incident at BCC involved an employee who was positive for COVID and who came to work in the absence of sick leave time and infected others, which resulted in the South Hall building being closed for cleaning and disinfection. This building does not have an HVAC system, but has been occupied by employees during the pandemic.
These safety concerns, amongst others that my colleagues have cited that we cannot highlight in three minutes, continue to pose a serious health and safety risk for students, faculty and staff. Therefore, we collectively recommend the following:
Funding be provided to aid capital projects to install and update HVAC systems in poorly ventilated buildings and buildings that do not meet ASHRAE standards by August 2, 2021, not be opened until they do.
As CUNY has commenced an intensive survey of ventilation on campuses, we ask that these reports be made public to all CUNY employees, especially those who occupy these spaces prior to reoccupancy.
As the chancellor mandated all campuses to push for a 60% in-person return for the Fall, and as CUNY will commence a testing initiative, we look forward to seeing this manifested into fruition at each college. We ask that students, faculty and staff are not asked to return until this testing initiative is fully in place.
Diane Price Banks
Bronx Community College
Concerns from Brooklyn
We have space and material constraints. We are not wealthy institutions. In addition, not all campuses, and certainly not all departments, can make facilities safe for 60% in-person or hybrid instruction this Fall. Some may be able to reach that target just fine without risking anyone’s health, some may not. There shouldn’t be pressure to hit an arbitrary across-the-board metric when employee and student health and safety are of paramount concern. Moreover, teaching modality really matters to pedagogy and workload. When administrators mandate changes to the course modality, they are effectively telling instructors to revise their courses. For some this may be a relatively simple matter, but for others it is enormously time consuming.
BEWARE OF MUTATIONS
The COVID-19 virus is also mutating, and new, more deadly variants are emerging. Many colleagues are concerned about being forced to go back into face-to-face teaching, particularly if there might be another wave of the virus, or some unexpected mutation. In addition to the various unknowns that we face, the concern raised by one of my colleagues, which reflects some of our concerns draws from a news report on CNBC: “In April 2021, Dr. Fauci stated that we know that the vaccines may provide protection for six months, but we do not know exactly for how long. The vaccine has not been around that long to know. What happens if/when the effectiveness of the vaccines ‘wears off’? If the vaccines lose their effectiveness, people might not know, until they are sick and actively spreading the virus. What is CUNY’s plan if people who were vaccinated are no longer protected?”
A colleague asked whether:
- CUNY can require both faculty, administration, staff and students to be vaccinated before they can come onto the premises;
- there would be equity implications, where the situation would privilege faculty based on tenure status;
- since adjuncts bear the weight of teaching most of the in-person classes, …. [would they be] jeopardizing their employment if they do not want to be vaccinated and/or [would it be] putting them at risk?
Furthermore, there should be COVID testing centers in all CUNY colleges, and we would like to know plans for contact tracing and notification of all concerned in cases of infection, as well as what conditions would precipitate a shutdown.
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