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Home » Clarion » 2021 » June 2021 » Members question CUNY reopening

Members question CUNY reopening

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For safety on campuses

Over the last 15 months, the trauma PSC members and the CUNY community have experienced under the global COVID pandemic has been magnified by hasty, inconsistent and, in many cases, flat-out wrong decisions by the CUNY Administration.

The decision to lay off 2,000 adjuncts, the attempt to reopen the Hunter Campus Schools while flagrantly defying basic health and safety considerations, the withholding of the 2% raise due last November, and the attempt to withhold equity raises due to Assistants to HEO and Lecturers (which the PSC defeated) stand out as prominent examples. For months, CUNY Central refused to issue guidance for what a safe return to campus would look like or how to protect the health and safety of staff and faculty who have already returned or never left.

Given the vacuum in CUNY Central leadership, the PSC tapped deep health and safety expertise within our membership to draft and publish ten standards for a safe reopening, listed in this newspaper, along with a document detailing what implementation of each standard should look like, (see tinyurl.com/PSC-safety-standards.) At a virtual town hall hosted by the PSC in May, more than 1,500 members gathered to hear from PSC leaders and the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs about the standards, and to ask their questions and express their concerns.

TALKING TO ADMINISTRATION

The CUNY administration has expressed appreciation for the PSC standards and has recently committed to resume preoccupancy walk-throughs with PSC members. Nevertheless, inconsistent and contradictory central decision-making continues to frustrate PSC members who want to a return to teaching and serving students in-person, but insist that any return must be a safe return for everybody’s sake.

After instructing colleges to prepare for roughly 20% in-person instruction in the Fall, the CUNY administration recently changed course and said colleges should plan for 60% in-person instruction on campuses in the Fall with a partial return of staff on August 2. This updated guidance is being treated by many CUNY colleges as a new mandate.

Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez said, “My office has made the careful decision to mark the week of August 2 as the date for staff to return to their workplaces in preparation for a more in-person Fall.” To this Rodríguez added, “Faculty will follow in accordance with the academic calendar of their campus.”

The chancellor, in a letter to campus administrators, said, “I’m encouraging a 60% (in person & hybrid) and 40% online flexible goal” for the Fall. Is CUNY ready? Is this safe? How will administrators help faculty and staff receive accommodations needed for a safe return? These are a few of the questions members are asking.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that both CUNY and SUNY will require students who return to campus to be vaccinated, saying, “There is no factual argument against the vaccine, and there is no excuse not to get your shot.” But how will that be enforced, and by whom? Does this apply to anyone coming onto campuses? Who will be required to be back on campus, and what accommodations will be made for those who may need or wish to continue working remotely?

Even before the pandemic, the union’s health and safety team had concerns about old HVAC systems, out-of-order bathrooms and crowded spaces on various campuses. Union activists are spending the spring and summer studying CUNY’s reopening plan and working to ensure that CUNY Central and college administrators implement the union’s safe reopening standards.

While faculty and staff have been creative in adapting to remote learning during the pandemic, many are eager to see a return to classrooms and campuses. The remote situation has not only been stressful for faculty, staff and students, it has not been conducive to effective teaching and learning.

“We very much want faculty and staff to provide the education students need,” said PSC First Vice President Andrea Vásquez. “How will enrollment go up and graduation rates increase if we don’t have small, high-quality classes offered face-to-face?”

But reopening must be done safely and prudently. David Gerwin, chapter chair at Queens College, said in an email, “While I have great sympathy for the desire to be more in-person – we all want that – in a situation that is rapidly improving . . . neither CUNY nor Queens College prepared a ‘Plan B’ for a more reopened campus. In contrast, the provost pushed chairs all last summer and into the fall to have a ‘Plan B’ for 25% cuts. No talk preceded this 60% decree and it makes no sense to do so during registration.”

STAFF CONCERNS

For members who work regular 9-5, Monday-through-Friday schedules, like higher education officers, college laboratory technicians and librarians, these concerns ring especially true, because in typical times they spend more hours on campus than instructors.

Cindy Bink, chapter chair for HEOs, said, “College presidents need to make it very clear to HEOs when and why it is safe to fully return to campus. Evidence of upgraded ventilation systems, adequate spacing and other protective protocols should be well communicated. This will not be easy, because many HEOs experienced the poor building conditions prior to COVID and have learned not to trust CUNY building inspections. If the campuses are not safe for students and faculty, they are not safe for HEOs or others.”

Bink added, “To sit in offices 35 hours a week with poor ventilation and limited access to students makes absolutely no sense. We know there will be students who want to communicate with our offices remotely. To return HEOs full-time under these circumstances serves no one. In addition, many HEOs worry about bringing COVID back to vulnerable relatives living in their homes.”

LIBRARY ISSUES

Library faculty are also concerned. Mariana Regalado, an associate librarian for information services at Brooklyn College and chair of the PSC Library Faculty Committee told Clarion, “While a student may spend 75 or 90 minutes in a classroom, they often spend multiple hours in CUNY libraries, so we are concerned that the emphasis on planning for classrooms may overlook our concerns about enforcing masking and social distancing, cleaning and contact tracing in the libraries.”

At the May PSC virtual town hall, members brought up issues such as: “What happens when someone on campus or in my classroom tests positive for COVID?” In that case there should be a campus point-person for COVID response that one can go to. Another issue: while CUNY addresses what can be done for personnel who have a high COVID risk because of comorbidities, it falls short in addressing what can be done about other disabilities that can make COVID compliance difficult. After all, people who have hearing difficulties can’t read lips through a mask. People in wheelchairs can’t avoid elevators.

“Workers across titles at Lehman are concerned about being allowed to continue to work remotely if they’re immunocompromised or at higher risk due to illnesses or conditions that may not fall 100% within the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said PSC Lehman College Chapter Chair Robert Farrell in an email to Clarion. “They’re also worried about their vulnerable family members who either can’t be vaccinated or for whom vaccination doesn’t provide enough protection. We hope that CUNY will listen to employees and allow those who need to work completely remotely for their own or their family’s safety to continue to do so.”

“The CUNY administration has provided minimal guidance, so every campus has developed different plans and different standards, and then CUNY has thrown whatever plans were developed into chaos by pushing for 60% of classes to be in-person and pushing for staff to return to campuses in early August,” said Sharon Utakis, the recently elected PSC vice president for community colleges. “I am fully vaccinated, and I hope that as many other PSC members as possible will be vaccinated, too, but that’s not enough. Even if students are mandated to be vaccinated in order to register for in-person classes, what about students who come to campus for other reasons? And what about others who come to campus?”

FRESH AIR

Utakis, a former chapter chair at Bronx Community College, added, “Ventilation is another issue that I’m concerned about. There is a lot of variation among buildings across CUNY and even across individual campuses. Some have modern HVAC systems that can be outfitted to comply with ventilation guidelines, but others don’t. While it may not be true on every campus, on some campuses, including my own, the administration seems more concerned about getting people into classrooms and offices than about whether those workspaces are safe.”

While PSC’s guidance to the CUNY community has helped, members still have concerns that CUNY Central has failed to address. The union is doing everything in its power to ensure a safe return.

Shomial Ahmad contributed to the reporting of this story.


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