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Mask mandate and vaccine negotiations

Mar 10, 2022

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March 10, 2022

Dear PSC members,

We would like to address two critical health and safety issues our members currently face – the end of the mask mandate, and our ongoing negotiations regarding the vaccination mandate. It’s a long letter, and we appreciate your forbearance–just as we appreciate the efforts everyone reading this has been making to keep all of us safer during the ever-shifting COVID crisis.

MASK MANDATE

Many of our members learned that CUNY lifted its mask mandate only as they came in this week, as the Chancellor shared this news in an email late Friday, timed as if to escape notice or reaction. As we wrote last Thursday, the PSC strongly believes that this is a premature move on CUNY’s part, once again made out of political expediency, rather than public health. We know that Mayor Adams is lifting mask mandates, and the CDC has relaxed its guidance on masking in areas that are not high risk, according to its revised metrics. While so many of us are also tired of wearing masks, CUNY should have waited to see how the widespread relaxation of vaccination standards and mask wearing bears out in our city before ending the mask mandate. Crucially, the administration should have meaningfully consulted with its faculty and staff – through the union, our chapters, and the campus reopening committees – before ending a critical precondition for faculty, staff and students returning to the campuses this semester. 

We are writing to urge various steps we see as essential for the ongoing maintenance of a healthier working and learning environment at CUNY.

We urge that campus re-opening committees convene to discuss the impact of the end of the mask mandate at their schools. Local schools, departments, offices, and classrooms should have the autonomy to create their own masking expectations. Just as businesses and Broadway have that latitude, particular spaces at CUNY should be able to develop their own mask-wearing policies and create their own schedules for relaxing or ending such expectations in the coming period. Why?

  • Students, faculty and staff who are immunocompromised or who live with immune-compromised household members should be entitled to a safer space to work and study. If co-workers or students need the folks around them to stay masked to stay healthy, masks should be worn.
  • CUNY has yet to share ventilation data about many of the spaces we currently occupy; to remove masks, CDC guidelines assume adequate ventilation, of which we are not universally assured. Without autonomy to enforce masking in over-crowded classrooms and stuffy offices, about which we have no granular data, CUNY is courting the spread of a disease that remains deadly for many in our community. 
  • Incomprehensibly, CUNY has imposed a selective vaccine mandate, which means that everyone on campus is working in a mixed vaccinated environment. Members who responded to a January union poll cited this as their single greatest concern. Everyone working or studying at CUNY right now should be vaccinated, unless they are exempted from doing so. Removing masks without such a policy flies in the face of public health.
  • Students returned to in-person classes with the understanding that everyone would be masked. Some college administrators have advised that faculty not encourage masking, as our authority in the classroom might make it sound like a mandate. But the relative lack of power that many of our students must now feel in light of this sudden change would compel faculty, we believe, to approach the end of the mask mandate very conscientiously. We urge our colleagues to open space in their classrooms, both through discussion and through anonymized feedback, so that students who are worried for themselves or family members can express their concerns. Classrooms should create community norms that recognize that “we are all in this together” and that masking remains a good layer of protection for everyone. We believe all masking practices during what we hope is a transition stage should reflect this lowest common denominator approach – continuing to wear masks is how we can support each other.  
  • Faculty are entitled to information about the number of unvaccinated students in their in-person classes, though not their identities. As we are not allowed to ask who is vaccinated, we cannot ask only the unvaccinated to wear masks. Such mixed classrooms must be allowed to maintain universal masking.

We recognize that mandates are being lifted across the city, state and nation. We celebrate the low infection rates and decline in hospitalizations. But we note that at this writing, NYU, Columbia, and Fordham – all of which have universal vaccination mandates in place – either continue to mandate masks or allow discretion in classrooms for insisting on masks. 

COVID remains a deadly disease—obviously, for the unvaccinated, and even for a small number for whom the vaccines do not prevent severe disease or death. We are also cognizant of the fact that as a union our power is collective, and we are only as strong as we are united and standing up for one another. As educators, we want to create caring and supportive environments for our students and model such mutual respect in our classrooms. Just as many welcome the end of the mask mandate, many are scared for themselves or for loved ones at home who are still facing COVID as the deadly disease it remains for so many. We encourage our co-workers to listen to one another and respect the wishes of their colleagues and students who wish to keep masking in place as we move ahead in this pandemic. CUNY administrators should do the same.

VACCINE MANDATE NEGOTIATIONS

The vaccine mandate for faculty and professional staff goes into effect April 1, and the PSC continues to negotiate its implementation with CUNY management. Our guiding principles are to protect jobs and due process for our members and to protect public health and the safety of the campus community. CUNY’s decision to impose the mandate selectively (only for PSC-represented employees and those on the executive compensation plan) undercuts the public health rationale and provides critical context for our negotiations.

This is an update on what we are seeking in the negotiations. 

  • To make sure our members have the time and information necessary to get vaccinated if they are able and to make sound decisions for themselves if they are not.
  • To make sure CUNY fulfills its responsibility to keep campuses as safe as possible.
  • To make sure the criteria for medical and religious exemptions are reasonable, transparent, and consistently applied.
  • To limit the range of disciplinary actions CUNY may take to enforce compliance.
  • To forestall CUNY from taking any adverse employment action this semester toward employees who do not comply with the mandate, and instead to require more frequent COVID testing of those employees.
  • To exempt from the mandate employees who, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in New York, had not been working in person and have continued to work remotely since.

We are eager to complete the negotiations so that PSC members fully understand their rights and responsibilities with respect to the COVID vaccine mandate. Many of you have contacted us with questions and concerns, and we appreciate hearing from you. We will continue keeping you updated on further developments.

In solidarity,

James Davis, President 
Andrea Vásquez, First Vice President
Felicia Wharton, Treasurer
Penny Lewis, Secretary

 


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