Instructors across campus are expressing concerns about COVID-19 protocols currently in place despite being told the classroom is “the safest place to be on campus” by the University of Michigan administration.
Among those concerned is Rackham student Ryan Glauser, co-chair of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s COVID-19 caucus, who told The Michigan Daily he felt no reassurance in returning to the classroom this semester.
“It more pissed (GEO) off because we know of students who are positive (for COVID-19) coming to our classrooms, sitting in class and then leaving,” Glauser said. “We don’t know how (the University) is making (the) assessment (that classrooms are particularly safe), but we know it’s not based off of numbers because they can’t provide them to us when we asked them.”
In August, the University announced it would require all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. U-M community members who were granted exemptions are required to get tested weekly. Currently, 96% of students and 88% of staff, including 96% of faculty, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The University also requires everyone wears masks in all on-campus buildings regardless of vaccination status.
At the start of the fall 2021 semester, COVID-19 cases increased dramatically, by over 100 cases during the first three weeks of classes. By the end of September, the positivity rate on campus dropped to about 0.8% and has remained low.
Even with high vaccination rates among students and faculty, Rackham student Erick Aguinaldo, graduate student instructor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, told The Daily on Sept. 30 he has yet to experience a full week without a potential COVID-19 exposure since the beginning of the semester.
“I get overwhelmed by emails every week about students who’ve either tested positive for COVID, are showing symptoms or think they might have been exposed,” Aguinaldo said.
Aguinaldo said he found it impossible to properly social distance in the classroom, especially without personal protective equipment being supplied by the University. As a result, he decided to teach both of his Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies sections outdoors, weather permitting.
“I’ve been teaching outside because of fear of COVID, but to my knowledge, there are not continuously refilled masks in the classroom,” Aguinaldo said. “From my understanding, (the University’s) masks aren’t great, so I went out of pocket and bought all of my students KN95 masks for their safety and my safety as well.”
Aguinaldo also said his students’ mental and physical health remains the top priority in discussion sections, something that is reflected in how he handles COVID-19 cases.
“I’ve been telling students (who tested positive for COVID) to stay at home and that we’ll work things out, which involves them doing the assignments from home,” Aguinaldo said. “I definitely encourage them to rest and focus on their well-being instead of tripping out about the class.”
The motivation for these precautions, Aguinaldo said, is his fear of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to his ten-month-old daughter, who is currently ineligible to be vaccinated.
“As (the delta variant) continued getting worse, I became more and more hesitant about being in person,” Aguinaldo said. “My daughter’s ten months old right now, so that was a big worry for me.”
Echoing Aguinaldo’s concerns, Lydia Kelow-Bennett, professor of Afroamerican and African studies, said she also felt nervous returning to the classroom in case of breakthrough infections that could put her two unvaccinated children at risk.
“With unvaccinated children at home, I have had to change the way we relate as a family which has been devastating,” Kelow-Bennet said. “Distancing from my own children seems too much to ask for a job.”
For faculty members to teach remotely, they must submit a request through Work Connections, the University’s disability management program. According to University President Mark Schlissel in an email obtained by The Daily, 28 requests for remote teaching were submitted through Work Connections. Of those requests, 20 were denied and 4 were accepted.
The Faculty Senate met last week to discuss and ultimately approve five motions, including the University’s COVID-19 protocols and the lack of options for instructors requesting remote teaching. Prior to the meeting, Schlissel wrote in an email to the assembly defending the University’s widespread return to in-person learning. Schlissel also said that instructor requests to teach remotely are carefully considered by medical personnel.
Schlissel added that “it is not in Work Connections’ scope to review requests related to the health status of an instructor’s family members or others with whom they reside.”
German professor Silke-Maria Weineck, who has been advocating for faculty with serious pre-existing conditions to be given more consideration for remote teaching options, said Work Connections often rejects remote teaching requests for faculty who may be immunocompromised.
In an email to The Daily, Weineck said this includes faculty who are currently in chemotherapy or who have lost multiple organs.
“Faculty who need to teach remotely due to high vulnerability are directed to Work Connections; a unit that has overwhelmingly declined to validate these requests,” Weineck said. “These colleagues’ own physicians, overwhelmingly UM physicians themselves, have endorsed these requests. … Case managers who are not equipped to evaluate patients are given the power to overrule experts in their field.”
For Political Science Professor Deborah Beim, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, the chair of the Political Science Department helped piece together a plan for asynchronous instruction during her quarantine period. Still, Beim said she wishes she had originally prepared a plan in case of a positive test this semester.
“(My department chair) helped me put together a plan where I uploaded asynchronous lectures from last year, which allowed me to take a week of rest,” Beim said. “I wish, in retrospect, that I had had a plan that I could just like immediately kick into action.”
After testing positive for a breakthrough case early on in the semester, Kelow-Bennett said she immediately canceled her classes but initially could not find anyone to take over instruction while she stayed home and recovered.
“My department just really struggled to figure out a way to cover my classes, which is partially about everybody being incredibly stretched thin,” Kelow-Bennett said. “But it’s also about (departments) and the larger University not having plans in place for the fact that professors were going to get sick and be out for extended periods of time.”
Once Kelow-Bennett’s quarantine period officially ended, she still felt the lingering symptoms of COVID-19, so much so that she was physically unable to hold a lecture without running out of breath. When Work Connections denied Kelow-Bennett’s request to continue teaching remotely, she said she felt helpless.
“I felt disposable when I read that email,” Kelow-Bennett said. “I realized that if all (the University) cares about is that I’m infectious, not the fact that I will pass out either walking to class or talking to students, then that means that there’s no value put on my well-being and my life.”
When GSIs want to opt for remote instruction, Glauser said they are not allowed to use Work Connections and must instead submit both an Americans with Disability Act work request and a Services for Students with Disabilities request.
Hoping to teach remotely, Aguinaldo said he sought assistance from his instructor, as well as the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, to switch to a fully virtual format for his discussion sections.
Though the department provided Aguinaldo with a lecture hall for his discussion sections to be better able to social distance, he said they ultimately declined his original request to teach over Zoom.
“I met with the interim department chair, and they were willing to provide accommodations to make me feel safer, but there’s no way to completely teach online,” Aguinaldo said. “They essentially said, ‘if you refuse to teach in person, then we have to remove you from your position.’”
Individual departments at the University are subject to college guidelines concerning teaching format and online instruction requests.
After the meeting, Aguinaldo said he left feeling like his voice was not heard and his situation not considered.
“I made it pretty clear that I was angry with the way the conversation went and the way consequences were framed,” Aguinaldo said. “I felt like it kind of devalued the safety of my family.”
According to Glauser, these feelings of frustration are the general sentiment felt among GSIs whose requests for accommodations have not been met.
“I know of at least ten people who have not been able to get accommodations,” Glauser said. “At this very moment, we’re still fighting to get them remote work or extra accommodations for in-person work so that they’re safe.”
With the Faculty Senate’s recent passing of the motion advocating for the incorporation of faculty input into the University’s in-person teaching policy, Kelow-Bennett said she hopes University leadership will consider faculty concerns and trust instructors to govern themselves.
“This moment is a critical moment for central administration to rethink how they are using their power and to rethink what faculty governance really looks like,” Kelow-Bennett said. “What we need are the flexibility and the support to be able to make the decisions that we need to make in order for everyone to navigate this pandemic.”
Daily Staff Reporters Evan DeLorenzo and Justin O’Beirne can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.