18 August 2020

Dear Members of the Board of Trustees for the PASSHE System and Temple:

Together, we represent over 9000 faculty, librarians, academic advisors, staff, graduate students, medical students, and coaches at 15 different universities. Along with the students we serve, we are the lifeblood of our institutions: We teach the classes, win the grants, do the research, make the art, advise the students, coach the teams, serve on the committees, and serve our communities. When called on to pivot to online work in response to the current pandemic, we did so without hesitation and with unstinting effort. Now, we are being called on again to invest extraordinary time and resources to adapt to the grave challenges posed by the pandemic. And, again, we are ready to answer the call.

However, we are also being asked to needlessly risk our lives and the lives of those we love. We cannot accept this, and neither should you. 

We call on you to acknowledge that the ferocity of this virus and the failures in our national response have upended the plans our institutions have constructed. We urge you to join institutions large and small, rich and poor, public and private who have recently realized they must alter course. As of this writing, the U.S. has surpassed 5 million COVID-19 infections, an average of more than 53,000 new infections a day; the situation is much more dire than many of us imagined it would be. We are devastated by the loss of more than 170,000 Americans to COVID-19. Doctors and scientists every day warn us about the potential long-term health impacts of COVID-19 and encourage us to continue to be vigilant in our efforts to flatten the curve and reduce transmission. We have seen students, staff, and faculty get sick and die around the country, including at university campuses and their neighboring communities. We also need to acknowledge the enormous burden of increased family responsibilities that faculty, staff, and students are juggling due to the pandemic, making in-person teaching extremely difficult and in some cases logistically impossible.

We understand that people are supposed to wear masks and practice social distancing; however, we know that asymptomatic transmission can happen quickly in indoor spaces even when these precautions are taken. We also know that research on the propensity of our students to take risks makes it unwise to rely on their compliance with mitigation measures. Given the current state of COVID-19 in the U.S. and our institutions’ inadequate safety protocols and lack of consistent and widespread testing, we are being asked to choose between our health and our jobs when we know that we can teach effectively online.

We know that the choices before you could not be more difficult. We also know that a great deal of well-intentioned work, expertise, and considerable financial resources have gone into these plans. We understand that you want to satisfy our students’ desire for in-person instruction (though we are not convinced that you have properly surveyed them to see what they actually want given the current conditions). Of course, we would rather feel free to teach, advise, and coach them in person. We understand that you are concerned about revenue; so are we, since our jobs may hang in the balance.

But these considerations must be outweighed by the imperative to protect the health and safety of our members, our students, other employees of the university, and our neighbors.

Here’s how you can resist the temptation of questionable financial gains for one semester at the expense of the longer-term financial, reputational, and ethical health of the institutions you oversee:

1. Immediately reduce all in-person work to those classes legally required to be in-person. This might include courses required for licensure and for incoming international students.

2. Honor all requests by one of our members to work remotely. This should not be done by requiring employees to submit to a time-consuming process that requires them to disclose sensitive health information. ALL employees, of whatever rank, track, or seniority, must be accommodated.

 

If these two conditions were met, the threat to the health and safety of the university community would be significantly reduced. But you should also:

3. Provide clear metrics of infections, hospitalizations and deaths that would trigger a further shutdown of in-person operations.

4. Make available to all members of the university community, including neighbors, a dashboard that clearly displays the current state and history of COVID-19 infections, including hospitalizations and deaths, currently, within the last 14 days, and since the start of the semester.

5. Ensure that those few members who do need to work on campus are fully protected. This includes:

a) Requiring all members of the campus community to wear the types of masks or face coverings inside buildings that have been proven effective in limiting the spread of the virus. Our institutions should provide this equipment to ensure a minimum standard.

b) Instituting a robust testing and contact tracing program that will make it possible to stay in front of any outbreak.

c) Providing clear signage to remind all members of the university the importance of hand hygiene, mask wearing, and social distancing.

d) Upgrading HVAC systems in any building where our members work or students live to meet ASHRAE standards.

e) Providing clear policies on members’ rights in reacting to and reporting, without fear of penalty, any breach of safety protocols by students and others in the campus community.

f) Providing every college and department adequate maintenance protocols as per relevant guidelines as well as safety equipment, supplies, and adequate cleaning provided by the central University budget. There must be equity in the distribution of these resources among schools, departments and programs.

 

6. Include unions, local community members, and other key stakeholders in a substantive way in the decision-making process. For months, we have tried to alert you to the costs of a top-down, opaque, and exclusive process. We believe that this is a key factor that has led to the shortcomings in the current plans. We urge you not to repeat this mistake.

 

Our members and elected leaders stand ready to enter into a dialogue with you about how to address these grave problems. But we must first sound the alarm about the terrible risks you run if you do not change course. The potential damage to the universities we love could not be more profound–the loss of money, faith in leadership, health, and life. If you do not value the health and safety of the university community as you should, you will poison the relationship among all of its stakeholders for the foreseeable future.

Classes have already started on some of our campuses and will start soon at the rest. The window for acting before tragedy strikes is closing. We urge you to change course before it is too late.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

The Executive Committees of APSCUF, TAUP, and TUGSA and members of the student body of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine