Clarity needed on COVID-19 policies
On the first day of classes, PSC members rallied at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. (Photo Credit: Erik McGregor)
As the Spring semester approached, PSC members and chapter leaders consistently rose to the challenge of multiple compounding crises. Enrollments lagged behind set targets on many campuses. Several community colleges had sharp declines in enrollment for in-person classes. Having issued a firm 70% minimum for in-person classes for the Spring semester at every college, CUNY management found themselves in a bind as student demand for remote and hybrid options surpassed demand for in-person classes in many instances. Rather than modify the in-person requirement by permitting hybrid courses to count, as they had in the Fall semester, and as the PSC had urged, CUNY stayed the course and reiterated inflexible guidance. Even as the Omicron surge coursed through the city, confounding everyone’s best-laid plans and driving many ill New Yorkers into quarantine if not into the hospital, CUNY refused to relent on the 70% in-person minimum.
WEAK CUNY RESPONSE
At the same time, PSC activists and staff fielded many questions about Governor Kathy Hochul’s vaccine requirement for CUNY and SUNY faculty, issued during her State of the State Address. Did she really mean just faculty? On what date would the mandate take effect? Would boosters be required? Would medical or religious exemptions be available? How would the policy be enforced? CUNY management offered little clarity, despite the union’s repeated requests to negotiate the implementation of a vaccine mandate for faculty and staff. Even as the start of the semester neared, meetings yielded no formal proposals from the administration and no language from the state on which to base a policy.
Uncertain about the safety of their offices and classrooms and their commute on public transit, many faculty and staff sought extensions to remote work agreements while the union pursued expansion of the eligibility criteria to include employees who, whatever their personal safety threshold, live with someone who is immunocompromised or unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons.
The speed of Omicron’s spread stood in sharp contrast to the slow pace of CUNY’s response to rapidly changing conditions. Despite encouraging vaccination, CUNY left too many decisions about health and safety to individual campus administrators, even as they took the reins from those administrators on the scheduling crisis that their own miscalculations produced.
In late January, more than 4,500 union members responded to a PSC poll about safety and the Spring schedule. The high response rate clearly indicated the urgency that faculty and staff felt about these matters. For 87% of respondents, it was moderately or very important that CUNY permit greater flexibility for remote work and teaching, and equally important that CUNY define the scope of the vaccine mandate to include everyone in CUNY buildings. Following closely on these priorities, members expressed, was the provision of requiring N95 or KN95/KF94 face masks in the campus community. These and other poll results bolstered PSC health and safety demands at the CUNY Central and campus levels that were included in a union petition to the chancellor and the college presidents.
Our demands to CUNY Central:
- Clarify the proposed scope, timeframe and enforcement protocols for the vaccine mandate, so that any policy the Board of Trustees reviews has the union’s agreement.
- Make rapid test kits and N95/ KN95 or equivalent-grade masks available on-site to all members of the university community, in keeping with CDC guidelines for masking while indoors.
- Expand surveillance testing of vaccinated individuals to better monitor rates of infection and improve the COVID-19 tracking website to provide meaningful information to college communities.
- Release the ventilation data the PSC has requested and systematically upgrade ventilation on all campuses for protection now and into the future.
In support of local needs, we asserted that CUNY should clarify the following:
- Spring classes with low enrollments may run. The enrollment crisis at several colleges is of the administration’s own making. The university administration must take responsibility and refrain from canceling classes and laying off adjunct faculty.
- Supervisors and chairs should have the authority to set the modality of work for their programs, offices and departments, including allowing remote work and teaching to begin the semester. Such flexibility should account for the needs of members whose households remain especially vulnerable to COVID-19 infection due to individuals being immunocompromised or medically contra-indicated for vaccinations.
Even before the Spring semester began, PSC members mobilized to move a largely unyielding administration from its intransigent positions:
- Interim University Provost Daniel Lemons issued revised guidance to college presidents two weeks before Spring classes started, reducing the minimum in-person schedule requirement from 70% to 55%–60% and permitting colleges to open additional online classes to meet student demand.
- CUNY reduced the work-schedule requirement for professional staff to work on campus from 70% to 50% through the end of February.
- Many colleges facing enrollment drops stabilized the Spring schedule and permitted classes with low enrollment, even with those classes with rosters in the single digits, to run. Classes with five or more students got the green light at Lehman College and the Graduate Center and those with six or more students at Brooklyn College and Hostos Community College were also approved.
Any CUNY college president still insisting in late January that double-digit enrollment be a requirement for running a class, the union asserts, is doing so on their own without PSC support. Such decisions jeopardize the income of adjunct faculty (some of whom receive health insurance through CUNY employment) and the academic progress of CUNY students.
In-person rallies organized by the PSC at Bronx Community College and Medgar Evers College, on the first day of the Spring semester, galvanized nearly 100 members, many of whom had not participated previously in a union action. Members distributed face masks as faculty, staff and students came to attend, and PSC speeches and chants reinforced our key messages for the start of the term: Keep us safe! Keep us employed! Protesters donned red PSC sweatshirts emblazoned on the back with the words: Everyone Loves Someone at CUNY. The warmth of that sentiment and the fervor of our activists and allies was enough to thaw the crowd as snow flurries arrived to blanket the city.
If CUNY can demonstrate COVID-19 safety on our campuses, faculty, staff and students will all be eager to return. Likewise, the commitment that PSC members have already shown to this year’s budget fight and to championing the New Deal for CUNY legislation has been extraordinary. The union has built an effective ground game to engage Albany and City Hall by deepening the CUNY Rising Alliance coalition and fostering grassroots member activism in electoral districts across the city and beyond.
Despite the enormous challenges, the past few months have demonstrated the resilience and ingenuity of PSC members. We have also shown solidarity across rank and job title, and we have demonstrated the tremendous progress we are capable of when we stand united together.