In a press conference Thursday, union leaders representing thousands of faculty and staff at Illinois colleges and universities formally issued a joint statement calling on campus presidents to start the upcoming semester with online learning.
“The latest science should dictate and guide the reopening of our colleges and universities to protect the safety of our students, faculty, employees, their families, and communities,” said University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) President John Miller. “With so much still unknown about COVID-19, this is not the time to rush the reopening of our institutions.”
Considering the current uptick in cases across Illinois and the likelihood of a second wave in the months ahead, we must put science before politics and economics to ensure everyone’s safety, he added.
University Professionals of Illinois – which as part of the Illinois Federation of Teachers represents faculty and staff at seven of Illinois’ 12 public universities – is one of more than 40 unions and allied groups to sign on to a joint higher education statement demanding remote learning to start this fall.
Among the other unions supporting the statement are the:
- Cook County College Teachers Union,
- University of Illinois-Chicago United Faculty,
- Columbia College Chicago Faculty Union,
- Southern Illinois University Faculty Association,
- Federation of College Clerical and Technical Personnel,
- Elgin Community College Faculty Association, and
- Illinois Education Association Higher Education Council.
The unions and their partners also released a data-based best practices document developed by union-member experts which details how campuses can eventually reopen safely. (The full scientific report is available here.)
Included among their safety guidelines:
• Required social distancing, PPE, and hand hygiene
• Instructor/employee autonomy in deciding whether to hold classes or complete work remotely or in-person
• Performance of a risk assessment in the event a course or other work responsibility is conducted in-person
• Reasonable accommodations must be made for employees who are at high-risk and asked to teach or work in-person
• Recognize special precautions are required for hands-on instruction in some courses (eg., music, dance, labs, auto technology, etc)
• Development of special plans must be put in place for students, faculty, and staff in vulnerable populations
Faculty and staff statewide have expressed serious concerns about returning to in-person instruction as the pandemic continues, particularly with case numbers growing in the key college age groups of 10-19 and 20-29, according to IDPH Director Dr. Ezike.
“We know the virus spreads readily in closed spaces like classrooms,” said Billy Hung, associate professor at Eastern Illinois University. “The health and safety of our students must come first.”
Many employees are also worried about their own health and that of their families.
Booker Crombie, a building services worker at University of Illinois-Springfield, said, “I’m in a group who are at high risk should I get infected, and I’m a caregiver for a high-risk family member. I think we have a good opportunity here to err on the side of safety by starting the semester remotely, and that’s the approach we should take.”
“There’s no amount of plexiglass or masks that would make me feel safe because of the airborne nature of the virus,” added Akiza Boddie-Willis, an academic advisor at Malcolm X College. “My work puts me in close contact with students…by going back too soon, we’re being put at unnecessary risk. We’ve been able to serve students effectively in a remote capacity since this began and we can continue to do so.”
The unions have issued their demand and a science-based best practices report for reopening to college and university presidents statewide. Members believe the guidance provided by the Illinois Board of Higher Education is too vague to ensure a safe return to campuses.
They are also asking Gov. Pritzker to reconsider his recommendation for in-person instruction and urge his support for stricter safety guidelines prior to reopening campuses.
“We all want to go back to face-to-face instruction,” said Miller. “But the reality is this situation right now doesn’t dictate that. We have to work together to move things forward in the safest and most effective way possible for everyone in our academic communities.”