As COVID-19 cases rise in Illinois, faculty union leaders from multiple college campuses across the state are demanding universities and colleges hold all classes remotely this fall, except in rare cases.
At a press conference Thursday, a coalition of unions representing faculty at most Illinois public universities and some community colleges said they wanted schools to assess the risks of holding each in-person class in coordination with faculty, who they believe should make the final decision on how they want to teach this fall. If faculty agree to teach in-person, they want schools to provide more personal protective equipment and safety protocols. They also want universities to better include faculty and staff in reopening discussions.
According to reopening plans released throughout the summer, many public universities are offering a mix of in-person and online classes this fall, as well as hybrid classes that include online and in-person components. Many university campuses will be open with social distancing guidelines, extra cleanings and mask requirements. Most universities are allowing students to live on campus.
“I get what university presidents are worried about. They want to have a college experience especially for new students,” said John Miller, president of the University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, which represents faculty and staff at seven of Illinois’ public universities. “But the college experience we are used to having … is just not going to exist this fall, and it’s important that we provide for the protection and safety [of faculty, staff and students].”
The group also slammed the Illinois Board of Higher Education for offering vague reopening guidance that they believe does not include enough scientific information for universities as they develop their reopening plans. Three professors who were appointed to IBHE’s reopening committee said they asked to have their names removed from the final report because it lacked technical guidance.
“They just simply removed that content,” said Sheila Simons, a professor and expert in the field of epidemiology and human diseases at Eastern Illinois University. She said IBHE leaders thought their recommendations were too restrictive.
The three professors, including Simons, Northern Illinois University Professor Bill Mills and Triton College Professor Gabriel Guzman, said they also struggled to get COVID-19 data from the state to guide their recommendations. They, along with UPI Local 1400, released their own report Thursday with best practices for reopening colleges and universities.
In response, IBHE executive director Ginger Ostro said in a statement that “The objective for IBHE was to provide general guidance that follows the CDC and IDPH [Illinois Department of Public Health], while allowing each institution to tap into their own expertise to address the unique needs of their student body, faculty and staff and physical footprint.”
The coalition of unions want Gov. JB Pritzker to reconsider his recommendation for in-person classes and ensure universities are creating plans that prioritize the health and safety of staff and students.
Union leaders said while some universities are listening to faculty concerns, others are treating faculty as adversaries and plans are released without any opportunity for employee input.
Billy Hung teaches biology at EIU, where administrators recently released a reopening guidebook. Hung said faculty feel their voices weren’t involved in developing plans.
“The guidebook was dropped into our laps, and there was no way to make an input into the process, so it has been frustrating,” he said.
Union leaders said administrators at Northeastern Illinois University and Moraine Valley Community College have done a better job of including faculty in reopening discussions.
Faculty across the state said they’re especially concerned universities are not providing specific information about how they plan to improve air quality and ventilation in classrooms and buildings as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is airborne. IBHE’s guidance does not mention air quality or ventilation.
“The discussion about the mitigation of aerosols has been absent in too many return to campus plans,” said Miller.
Student services employees, including advisors and librarians, also expressed concern about returning to campuses who say remote services are working well for students and should continue to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Kevin O’Brien, a health science librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said librarians are concerned about students crowding in study spaces and elevators, whether spaces can be cleaned routinely and poor ventilation in buildings. Currently, students can pick up materials or have them sent home, which staff would like to continue during the upcoming year.
Akiza Boddie-Willis, an adviser at Malcolm X College on Chicago’s Near West Side, said remote advising through phone and video has also been successful. Advisors are asked to return August 3, according to the school’s reopening plan.
“There’s no amount of plexiglass or masks that I feel would make me safe because of the airborne transmission, because of the type of interactions we have with students,” she said.
Boddie-Willis said City Colleges of Chicago administration have not explained why it’s important for staff to return to campus instead of continuing remotely, even though most classes will be held online this fall.
Union leaders said there are no current plans to strike or organize other action to protest reopening plans. Most contracts require universities to provide a safe working environment for employees and they hope universities will decide to collaborate with faculty unions to ensure safety protocols are created and followed throughout the semester.