Should the University of Arkansas just “stay the course”? Its union, UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965, rejects the leadership’s plan, announced Jan. 6, to “stay the course” from the last six months of 2021 for the first part of the new year. Their plan is despite a crush of active covid-19 cases in Arkansas — more than 44,000 as of Jan. 6, yet climbing as preK-12 and post-secondary schools reopen for spring semester.
The masking and social-distancing rules for students and employees that began mid-June 2021 proved to be insufficient. That they have been essentially unenforced demonstrates at best misplaced priorities.
The Jan. 6 announcement from Interim Chancellor Charles Robinson, Interim Provost Terry Martin and UAPD Capt. for Emergency Management Matt Mills acknowledges that other campuses in Arkansas are either delaying the resumption of classes or teaching online initially, according to a Jan. 6 Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article.
The statement details how UA will be “staying the course” of fall semester including (1) in-person instruction beginning as scheduled Tuesday, Jan. 18, (2) an indoor masking mandate unless a minimum of 6 feet between individuals is maintained, and (3) to “strongly encourage” a full course of vaccinations. The university will continue a policy of 10 days of isolation or quarantine for infected individuals.
“Strongly encouraged” isn’t getting the job done.
While the UA mandates masks on the Fayetteville campus, the faculty and staff have found enforcement to be nearly impossible. Some students openly defied faculty requests to wear masks; others brought food and drink to classrooms as excuses to keep their masks down from their mouths. For many faculty members, the lack of real enforcement tools made any attempt to police the mandate impossible while wasting valuable teaching time. Furthermore, the university granted a loophole, insisting that a mask was required only if 6-foot social distancing was not possible. The result was confusion in classrooms, hallways and buildings such as Mullins Library, which became a virtual mask-free zone to the dismay of many employees.
“The indoor mask mandate should be made absolute, eliminating the ‘where social distancing can’t be maintained’ wiggle room,” one professor said. Many students seem to interpret this to mean they have to wear their masks in classrooms but nowhere else indoors. So one encounters unmasked snifflers and heavy breathers in restrooms, on crowded stairways and elsewhere.”
The University of Arkansas can and must do better. As a vaccination mandate continues to be considered unviable for the campus, other measures up to that point must be enacted.
- The “where social distancing cannot be maintained” loophole must be removed.
- More coronavirus testing stations are needed on campus.
- Masks and disinfectants should be available not merely upon request but stocked in every classroom.
- More inducements for vaccination should be created.
- Ban food and drink from academic buildings, including Mullins Library, except for offices and facilities such as break rooms.
- More support from administrators and campus police to enforce the masking mandate by removing the non-compliant.
- Faculty and staff at greatest risk must be allowed — with minimal delays in paperwork — to work remotely until the wave of covid-19 infections subside.
The University of Arkansas boasted Jan. 6 of its 11th-in-the-nation ranking from Newsweek for its online degree programs, yet the administration refused to allow faculty the choice to teach remotely for the fall 2021 semester, frequently citing the argument that ours is not a virtual campus.
Yet in the initial throes of the pandemic, the university moved to online learning in March 2020, continuing through May 2021. The University of Arkansas can go virtual and does go virtual — quite well — when virtual learning suits its purposes. Now, the purpose is more urgent than ratings and tuition dollars. The priority is to keep our campus safe and healthy. As Newsweek pointed out, the University of Arkansas can do that while still delivering a 5-star education.
Bret Schulte is president and Ben Pollock secretary of UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965. Schulte is an associate professor and Pollock a web manager on campus.