COVID Concerns

As the summer has progressed, it has become obvious that our hopes for an end to the pandemic will need to be delayed for the foreseeable future. While we support many of the steps the administration has taken, we have received communications from many faculty over the past few weeks expressing concern about the plan to have an in-person “return-to-normal” fall reopening at our residential campus, considering that many states, including Oregon, are seeing some of their highest rates of COVID infection during the pandemic. We believe faculty are right to be concerned.

Last week, Christina Karns, Lynn Fujiwara, Dave Cecil, and Avinnash Tiwari met with Mark Schmelz, Janet Woodruff-Borden, and Patrick Phillips from the administration to discuss faculty concerns and present them with four asks that addressed the most urgent concerns faculty have expressed to union leadership.

The three concerns with the current administration approach to fall reopening, followed by four demands for solutions.

Concern 1 – Timing
The UO administration must take earlier and more-decisive stances that put health and safety first.

The administration has been firm in their belief that the response to the pandemic must be centrally organized and that decision-making power must stay with them. They have said that faculty decision-making - whether it be class modality or masks in classrooms - is not an option. We hold that if this is the case, faculty have a right to know much earlier how safety will be prioritized. Faculty need early assurance that all reasonable steps will be taken to keep our work environment safe, both for their own peace of mind and to plan for the coming school year. We all know the situation is dynamic as new science comes in, and planning must be adaptive. We want the administration to adopt more conservative safety measures so that everyone is safe rather than sorry.

Concern 2 – Rigidity
The UO administration must account for the diversity of its faculty workforce, placing the professional values of responsible flexibility ahead of universalizable and inflexible policies.

For example, rather than using policies designed for a typical year, such as the ADA accommodation process or burdensome restrictions on flexible work arrangements, we believe the administration must offer commonsense policies that provide for the needs of a large and diverse workforce during exceptional times.

The pandemic does not affect all equally -- more specifically, there is diversity in caregiving needs, disability status, social support systems, financial resources, and additional burdens carried by being a marginalized person (e.g. due to gender, race, LGBTQ+ status). Responsible flexibility granted to faculty allows us, as professionals, to determine what solution best fits our unique circumstances, without burdensome and outdated policies being the only path forward for faculty to respond to the pandemic.

Concern 3 – Insulation
The UO administration must regularly listen to all faculty, especially dissenters, for them to understand what problems and solutions will succeed or fail in our classrooms, libraries, and research labs.

Faculty know that it is more productive to give proactive input on policies that affect the safety of our working environment, rather than for us to reactively complain when pre-determined policies are inadequate, outdated, or missing. In the dynamic environment of the pandemic, faculty must have the opportunity to shape policy very early and regularly. Communication and repetition within a closed system is insulated from rebuttal. There is wisdom in considering dissenting views early and often.

In light of faculty concerns regarding the timing, rigidity, and insulation of the return-to-fall policies and planning, we presented four specific asks to the university administration. The intent of these asks was to address the most urgent of faculty concerns and create a process for concerns to be heard in the future.

1. Faculty who test positive for COVID, faculty who have children who test positive for COVID, faculty who are quarantining following the guidance of the UO, CDC, or OHA, and faculty who have children who are quarantining follow CDC, OHA, or other government guidance (such as school policy) can choose to teach their classes and perform their other professional responsibilities remotely.

2. Masks for all students and staff when indoors, except when alone or eating in designated areas, regardless of vaccine status. If masks cannot be mandated for all indoor activities, the instructor should have the discretion to impose a mask mandate in their classroom.

3. No “philosophical” objection to the vaccine mandate. Currently, students and staff can opt out of the vaccine mandate for “philosophical” reasons. Due to the deadly nature of the global pandemic, exemptions should be reserved for when they are medically necessary.

4. A joint Labor-Management COVID Committee that meets weekly to exchange information regarding the planning for Fall term, faculty concerns, and joint messaging about Fall term.

We discussed each ‘ask’ at length. Here is a summary and assessment of our conversation.

Ask 1 - Flexibility for Illness and Quarantine
We told the administrators that our first priority was for instructional faculty to have a process for moving their class to a remote modality if they have COVID, need to quarantine, or have children who cannot attend school because of COVID.

Going into the conversation, we anticipated that this would be our most difficult ask. To date, we have only been told “the course schedule is the course schedule,” and it cannot be altered, leaving faculty no flexibility to take care of themselves or their children if needed.

We raised the issue that faculty and/or their household members may contract COVID, be exposed, or find themselves in a quarantine situation. When a child tests positive in a childcare center, that center or classroom often closes, and children are asked to get tested and to quarantine. School-age children who contract or are exposed to COVID will also be required to quarantine. Under these circumstances teaching remotely would be a logical solution if the faculty member is not too ill.

The administrators seemed receptive to this idea. They liked that it had “triggers” that were clear and would have a definitive ending period. They seemed to agree that there might be circumstances when it was unsafe for faculty to be in a classroom, and that there might be situations where faculty had unavoidable commitments preventing them from being at work.

When the conversation moved to a larger discussion about faculty being professionals who can choose when it is necessary to change a course modality, we had a more difficult time. For instance, we raised the issue of faculty parents who are concerned about sending their children to school or day care during a pandemic. The administrators reiterated their objection to faculty working remotely due to their “fears” about COVID. We had some sharp conversation about when “fears” during a pandemic justified action and whether they should be dismissed at all. It was clear, though, that the administration is not willing to be flexible about teaching modalities outside of those dictated by medical requirements or government-directed quarantine.

To be clear, if a faculty member has a medically required reason to teach remotely, they can pursue accommodations through Human Resources. This appears to be the one and only way the administration sees teaching remotely as an acceptable solution. If you have had any difficulty with the accommodations process, please reach out to us and we can help.

We hope the administration will act in a timely and collaborative manner with us to work through remote options for faculty, but in general, the conversation around this topic was tough and took the bulk of our meeting time. While many of us faculty see this as a fairly simple request for instructors of record to adjust their class modality as necessary given the extreme and unusual circumstances of the pandemic, our administrators are finding this topic difficult to navigate.

Ask 2: Masks in Classrooms
Our conversation about masks in classrooms was much easier. Given the latest mandate from Governor Kate Brown, we understand that the UO will require masks for all indoor activities, including classrooms, during Fall term.

This was welcome news and goes some way toward allaying the main concerns we have been hearing about how classroom, lab, and educational spaces will work in fall. However, we are still unclear on how the mask mandate will be enforced and how instructors will know which students have medical exemptions from mask wearing. We anticipate further conversation to clarify.

Both parties acknowledged the difficulty some faculty may have if they are required to wear a mask while teaching. This is in addition to the problems that may be raised by students who rely on lip reading. Again, we believe faculty can work with administration to find solutions.

Ask 3: No “Philosophical” Objection
Our third ask reflected faculty concern about the ease with which people can opt out of vaccination. While other states only allow exemptions for legitimate medical conditions or deeply held religious convictions, Oregon allows parents to opt their children out of immunizations for “philosophical” reasons. The guidelines for school-aged children have been applied to college students who are also required to prove immunization. Given the nature of the COVID pandemic, we do not believe that campus community members should be able to opt out of the vaccine mandate for “philosophical reasons.”

Unfortunately, the law and state guidelines regarding exemptions for vaccines are not all clear. State statutes require exemptions for “medical and non-medical” reasons. At some point, this was interpreted as allowing exemptions for “religious or philosophical reasons.” Additionally, the statutes that govern immunizations at post-secondary institutions only specify using the guidelines for school-aged children, although those guidelines clearly state that parents can opt their children out of immunization, provisions that are not applied to post-secondary students. So, it’s confusing and unclear. Additionally, Governor Brown has issued Executive Orders that require vaccinations that do not allow for philosophical exemptions.

Given that masks will be required in classrooms, and the vaccination rate is high among those students and staff who have reported, we agreed with the administration to keep working to seek clarification from the state on this issue, and revisit it if the number of students and staff claiming a philosophical exemption rises.

Ask 4: A joint Labor-Management COVID Committee
Given the complexity of the situation, the numerous other issues that need to be discussed, and a desire to make faculty and administration have a common understanding, we requested ongoing meetings. Weekly-scheduled meetings between faculty, HR, and the Office of the Provost representatives will allow us to engage in a manner this dynamic situation requires. No commitments were made as of yet.

Over the last eighteen months, the administration has repeatedly declared that the health and safety of the students and staff is their top priority. The rise of the Delta variant, and the plan to re-open campus as “normal”, are testing that declaration. The concerns faculty have expressed regarding the need for the administration to make quicker, safer decisions that take into account the diversity of needs on campus must be addressed. Our asks represent only the first steps toward addressing faculty concerns. As the last few weeks have shown us, we all have a lot more work to do. We think it is imperative that faculty and administration find collaborative solutions to address faculty concerns.

If you would like to discuss the reopening plans for fall, your concerns, or anything COVID related, please do not hesitate to reach out to your stewardsrepresentatives,  or our office. The officers and staff of our union want to represent our collective faculty voice, so the more you are talking with us the better we can do that.