The one size fits all campus reopening plan is dangerous

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For the first time in 18 months, the campus is alive again as students begin returning to a landscape of new buildings, COVID-19 notices, masks and hand sanitizer dispensers. While instructors and students alike are happy to see online learning in the taillights, the return to in-person classes amid the delta variant surge has changed the calculus. Whether we like it or not, students, instructors and their households are all about to take part in a giant public health experiment. On the second day of that experiment, there are already worrying signs with students testing positive or having been exposed to COVID-19 after the first day of class.

Our organizations — the Berkeley Faculty Association, or BFA; the Berkeley chapters of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT; and United Automobile Workers, or UAW, Local 2865, all of which are representing lecturers and graduate student instructors, as well as the ASUC — have repeatedly warned campus authorities to slow down the return to campus and allow instructors to decide whether they should teach in person or online. So far, we have been ignored. We believe that instructors — the people actually doing the teaching — should be part of the decision-making process.

Until now, campus leaders have handled the challenges posed by the pandemic responsibly, but the insistence on returning to campus in the middle of the delta surge seems rushed and risky. We are being told that the effects of online learning on student mental health, not the campus’s desire for revenue, make it necessary that most classes with less than 200 students be taught in person.

Many instructors and students are not just anxious; they have real and substantial concerns about stepping back into crowded and poorly ventilated classrooms. Members of BFA, and the Berkeley chapters of UC-AFT and UAW Local 2865 are eager to teach in person again, but many do not want that enthusiasm to endanger their health or that of students and staff, their households and communities. Some instructors have been equipped with masks and robed shields, and those who can afford it are allegedly carrying their own air filtration systems into their classes. What about this makes sense as a campuswide public health policy?

Students too are no less concerned about their safety in classrooms, not to mention the various orientations and Greek life parties that have already taken place. We worry that an already overstretched University Health Services, or UHS, will soon be overwhelmed and cases will exceed its capacity to test and treat. Vaccinations and masks do not ensure that instructors and students will not transmit the virus or get seriously ill from it. Instructors and students alike with unvaccinated children, elderly dependents or immunocompromised household members are especially concerned.

Over the past three weeks, our organizations have all asked UC Berkeley to reconsider its approach to returning to campus. That approach is insistent that one size fits all, that all instructors must return to the classroom and only those with medical conditions that compromise their immunity are likely to be exempt. There was no consultation with our organizations.

Even as classes have started we continue to ask Chancellor Carol Christ and her administration to think again. At the very least, they need to justify their approach by providing clear answers to clear questions:

How will the campus ensure that unvaccinated or noncompliant students, let alone those exposed to this highly infectious variant, will not be attending our classes?

Why has the campus not introduced weekly testing for instructors, staff and students as UCLA has announced it will do?

What are the guidelines that campus is following in regards to ventilation and filtration necessary to ensure occupant safety in classrooms? If the campus has data on air exchange rates in classrooms, why has that information not been made public?

What happens when students or instructors get COVID-19 or are exposed and have to isolate? Who is responsible for teaching those classes, and how are students expected to keep up having missed weeks of instruction?

Why has the campus decided to treat instructors as if they don’t have care responsibilities outside the classroom, exempting instructors with individual medical vulnerabilities, but not those who have vulnerable people in their households — with the exception of ladder-rank faculty and lecturers with security of employment who have access to leave and workload modification policies via a Berkeley-specific policy?

Until satisfactory answers to these questions are made public, the campus should slow the process down to adopt a more flexible and collaborative approach to the return to campus. Individual instructors, better informed about their own health and the often crowded conditions of their classrooms, should be allowed to make their own decisions as to when and whether they teach in person.

This is the first time that representatives of all instructors have spoken with a unified voice and with a single demand. Before it is too late to salvage any form of in-person classes, we once again demand that Chancellor Christ abandons the insistence that we all return to teaching and learning in classrooms, which we do not completely know are safe to teach in. We hope that the return to campus will be as safe as possible for all of us: teachers, students and our households and communities.

James Vernon, Leslie Salzinger and Sharad Chari are the co-chairs of the Berkeley Faculty Association; Crystal Chang Cohen is the co-chair of UC-AFT Bay Area Chapter; Schuyler Laparle is the Berkeley unit chair UAW 2865; and James Weichart is the ASUC vice president of academic affairs. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.