Union Faults Virus Plans for Students, Faculty, Staff

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Local 965 Responds to UA ‘Returning to Campus’ Strategy

News Release, June 2, 2020 

Chancellor Joe Steinmetz deserves praise for his leadership during the pandemic by swiftly closing campus, avoiding furloughs and lay-offs, and preserving the University of Arkansas’s high standards for education and research. However, the UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965 finds the plan released today, “Returning to Campus,” does little to clarify a confusing and potentially dangerous situation for the Fall 2020 semester.

Students

“Returning to Campus” does not go far enough to protect the health of students. We hope to see the administration address the following:

  • Student housing density. Neither the populations of dormitories nor the Greek houses will be reduced to allow more single-occupant living. 
  • Freshmen are still required to live on campus. 
  • Dining halls are scheduled to operate normally and at full capacity. 
  • No proposals to decrease risk on university buses. 

The plan issued by the University of Arkansas does not employ guidelines proposed by the American College Health Association for re-opening campuses. ACHA recommends all students be tested on arrival and that a sample population be tested at regular intervals to gauge the presence of the coronavirus on campus throughout the semester. The guidelines also recommend identifying quarantine space, preferably off campus, for infected students. 

Staff

U of A staff, which include the lowest-paid employees on campus, are left vulnerable under this plan.

Staff deemed essential will be required to report. Other staff “who are unable to be fully productive remotely” will also be required to work on campus. The plan, though, does not state how such a standard will be assessed nor by whom.

And while it seems clear that U of A employees infected with COVID-19 would be able to use sick leave while in quarantine, it is not clear that they could access benefits and continue to be paid if they are quarantined because of contact with an infected person. Not compensating such employees may encourage them to conceal contact with infected persons, to the detriment of the community.

Faculty

The plan’s guidelines for faculty, meanwhile, are conflicting. In Section 3, the document states that employees who self-identify as being at enhanced risk of COVID-19 must report to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance for potential (italics added) accommodations. But in Section 4, the plan states “colleges and departments are urged to continue online or remote delivery whenever that is feasible and effective.” The University faculty has proven it can teach effectively online. Does this mean that every faculty member should continue to teach online? Or must he/she have a pre-existing condition that requires an accommodation from the OEOC?

The plan signals to students that the University of Arkansas is returning to business (as mostly) normal, while simultaneously seeming to urge faculty to continue online and remote delivery of education whenever possible. 

Getting the re-opening of the University of Arkansas right is critical to its future. We urge the administration to be more specific in its proposals to safeguard the U of A community. Until then, UA faculty and staff have proven they can deliver a high-quality remote education, just as it has since campus closed in March. 

# # #

Update — Sunday, June 7, 2020 — University of Arkansas officials on Thursday, June 4, relaxed the longstanding requirement that first-year undergraduates must live on campus unless they present a doctor’s statement indicating an existing medical condition, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. “Covid-19 Allowed as Housing Claim” quotes campus spokesman John Thomas as saying, “If a new freshman is more comfortable living off campus due to Covid-19 concerns, we wanted to give them that option.”

While the article cites one parent’s request back in April, concern about the freshmen dorm mandate was a top criticism in Local 965 response, above, to the “Returning to Campus” document issued earlier that day, June 2. The Local’s analysis was reported in two area media outlets. The official document at this date still does not mention the broadening of the new freshmen exemption.

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