I’m writing with an update on the PSC’s position on CUNY’s current reopening guidance and the Fall semester. The pressure that our members brought to bear around safety in reopening led the administration to postpone the August 2 reopening target to August 16. That was a victory for the union, as it allows for time to conduct necessary campus walkthroughs. During the next two weeks, there are several steps CUNY must take to ensure a safe reopening, which we have communicated to CUNY and outline below.
An indoor mask mandate
The latest Guidance for Implementing COVID-19 Prevention Strategies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends indoor mask-wearing for unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals in areas with substantial or high rates of COVID transmission. New York City is one of those areas. The highly transmissible Delta variant is infecting New Yorkers at rates unseen in several months, and the trends in each borough are concerning. Citywide, roughly 55% of all residents (66% of adults) are fully vaccinated. Among New Yorkers age 18-24, only 53% are fully vaccinated. CUNY’s updated guidance on mask-wearing is unfortunately now obsolete. We have urged CUNY to abandon the “honor system” for mask-wearing among unvaccinated members of the campus community and to implement a consistent mask-wearing policy in all indoor facilities with more than one occupant. It is particularly important that CUNY implement this policy because of the number of employees who live with someone who is either immunocompromised, at increased risk of severe illness, or ineligible for vaccination (including children under age 12).
Vaccination and testing
We have urged CUNY to require COVID-19 vaccination for all students enrolled in in-person or hybrid classes this Fall. This had been the University’s stated intention, but on July 1 they weakened the policy to predicate it on FDA approval of vaccines for non-emergency use. Since FDA approval is not assured by the start of Fall 2021, CUNY is strongly encouraging student vaccination but is not making it a requirement for taking in-person or hybrid classes. We believe that is a recipe for confusion and, given the Delta variant, for transmission of the virus. CUNY is unlikely to face a lawsuit if they were to require student vaccination for in-person classes this Fall, and likely to win it if they did. We think the risks of failing to require student vaccination are considerable. Faculty members currently scheduled to teach in-person may balk at returning to classrooms whose occupants they had been led to believe would be fully vaccinated. Moreover, many of the communities in which our students reside are those most adversely affected by COVID; a vaccinated student population will help protect our students and the City as a whole. We have also urged CUNY to require unvaccinated individuals to show proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours to enter the campus, rather than within seven days, which is the current policy.
Direct federal stimulus funds to rehire laid-off faculty and support students
To keep the Fall 2021 schedule intact, CUNY should add sections as needed rather than cancel classes, as is typically done in response to low enrollments. Enrollment is down overall and most sharply at the community colleges. But that is why Congress passed three Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund acts: to address revenue shortfalls associated with enrollment declines and to keep employees on payroll. The PSC’s position is that the University should use a portion of its $890 million in institutional aid to support students and employees through the Fall semester by resisting the typical practice of cancelling low-enrolled sections and laying off adjunct faculty. They should instead preserve the integrity of the schedule, permit students to maintain their academic progress, and add sections as students continue to register so that the adjunct faculty who were non-reappointed can be rehired for this Fall.
The PSC’s pressure is working. Last Thursday, CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Daniel Lemons circulated a message which “discourage[d] the cancellation of in-person classes.” “[F]rom now until the fall term enrollment period is completed,” EVC Lemons continued, “individual campuses will determine what additional course modalities to make available.” He advised that “decisions made at the departmental level can be attuned to student demand and instructional capacity.” Important steps lie directly ahead. PSC members will continue to be an active presence at the campuses in the coming weeks. Our “flying squad” bolstered a lively PSC demonstration at Hostos Community College on July 21, and PSC members are invited to the LaGuardia Community College chapter demonstration of solidarity with employees returning to on-campus work on August 16, 8:30 am - 12:00 pm. Sign up for the PSC “flying squad” to stay apprised of additional in-person actions.
Please remember that your campus must have an approved reopening plan and have completed pre-occupancy walkthroughs of the facilities scheduled for reopening with union representatives present. To join the Health & Safety Watchdogs for training to conduct walkthroughs of facilities, click here. Continued progress toward a safe reopening requires that we engage collectively with CUNY on this front. Many thanks to our Health & Safety Committee for their extraordinary effort and advocacy, and to the hundreds of PSC members who are participating in the safe reopening campaign. This is a massive effort across 25 campuses and hundreds of buildings. Together, we will ensure that CUNY creates safe learning and working conditions.