We are sure our fellow members didn’t miss the late-breaking University Notification on March 24th announcing that Penn is reversing course on its previous 3/15 announcement and extending masking in classrooms. A lot of people who work and study on this campus are breathing a sigh of relief today. Our chapter’s collective action and advocacy made a difference here, and it was great to see the DP’s coverage showing that many students share the same concerns about safety and equity in the spaces where they work and study. Getting this policy reversed so quickly shows what we can do together. Thanks to everyone for contributing to this effort, and let’s keep up the momentum!
Yesterday, March 15, 2022, the Penn administration announced significant policy changes that eliminate indoor masking and other Covid-19 safety measures on our campus. To express the concerns and objections of many of our colleagues, AAUP–Penn’s Covid Response Task Force and the AAUP–Penn Executive Committee immediately drafted the following joint statement, which we sent to the Interim Provost and Interim President as well as the Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs today, March 16th:
Dear Interim President Wendell Pritchett, Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, and Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs William W. Braham, Vivian L. Gadsden, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson,
Having heard from colleagues alarmed by the University’s March 15th announcement regarding policy changes that remove Covid-19 safety measures, the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP–Penn) writes to share our collective concerns, and to ask the administration to reconsider these policies and provide clarification.
These abruptly announced policy changes are troubling and unsubstantiated by public health science:
- Screening testing is now required only for those who are unvaccinated, are not yet fully vaccinated, or have not uploaded their booster information.
- Masking is now optional in most indoor public spaces on campus, with the temporary exception of classrooms
- Masking will no longer be required in classrooms after March 28.
- Visitors to campus are no longer required to be fully vaccinated.
March 28th is less than a month from the end of the academic year. We are unclear as to why there is such a rush to unmask at this late date in the semester, and these new guidelines raise a number of concerns. In particular:
Our students travel widely during spring break, including to countries with rapidly rising Covid-19 rates such as the UK (despite very high vaccination rates) and other countries that have considerably lower vaccination rates. In addition, wastewater testing shows case rates in the U.S. rising at 38% of testing sites over the past two weeks; 15% of wastewater sites tracked by the CDC showed an increase in Covid-19 levels up to 1000%. This data suggests, despite a temporary lull, that the pandemic is not over. Why eliminate screening testing altogether, rather than modify testing policy and wait to gather data about infection rates on campus? Penn claims to rely on its own scientific expertise, yet the findings of its clinical group that supposedly meets regularly to assess OpenPass guidelines and other Covid-19 policies are never shared. Relying for guidance on the city of Philadelphia, which may be basing its decisions on political pressure as much as public health information, seems out of keeping with the knowledge-driven mission of a research university like Penn.
Booster effectiveness has been shown to drop dramatically after 4 months, causing Pfizer to seek approval for fourth boosters for those 65 and older, a population that includes a significant number of faculty members. Although Penn may have set a deadline of January 2022 for boosters, many faculty, graduate students, and staff received their booster shots when they were first available in October 2021. Such personnel are likely much more vulnerable to the new BA.2 variant. Additionally, students who are immunocompromised or not comfortable going maskless may feel self-conscious about wearing masks in class once they are no longer required. The welfare of our students is a top priority for faculty, and we are concerned for vulnerable members of our classes. We are equally concerned for the safety of staff and campus workers, particularly those who work in densely populated indoor spaces.
In light of the above, many of our colleagues ask for and urgently need further explanation and reconsideration:
- Will instructors have the option to require students to wear masks in the classroom, even if Penn’s guidelines make masks optional?
- Will faculty, grads, and staff with caregiving responsibilities for those in high risk categories, such as the elderly and children under 5 who cannot be vaccinated, be able to shift their teaching or work online if they can no longer expect students and those around them in their workplaces to wear masks?
- What steps are being taken to ensure that all students feel safe in common spaces, including immunocompromised, disabled, and other high-risk students?
- What steps are being taken to protect the health of staff in high-traffic spaces?
We realize that some members of the Penn community may be eager to go “back to normal,” and we sympathize deeply with that wish. But we cannot wish away the recurring risks or the impact of the pandemic on the lives of faculty, grads, students, and staff. Some of us have lost family members to Covid, and many of us currently care for elderly parents. Some of us live with partners or family members who are immunocompromised, or are older or otherwise medically vulnerable ourselves, and a very large number of faculty and staff have children under 5 who are still unable to be vaccinated. A non-trivial proportion of contingent faculty who teach Penn students and an even higher proportion of subcontracted campus workers may not even have employer-provided medical coverage if they get sick while working on our campus; what will Penn do to keep them safe? From the start of the pandemic our chapter has asked the University to prioritize the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our community. Removing even the most minimal forms of mitigation such as masking in our shared spaces now feels like organized abandonment.
In the interest of our entire community, we urge Penn’s central administration to rethink and reverse these premature policy changes.
On behalf of the American Association of University Professors chapter at Penn, we write to express concern about the planned return to in-person classes and campus-based work on January 24th and to inquire about the basis for the decision to proceed on that timeline. If the shift to remote instruction for the first twelve days of the semester during the Omicron spike was a response to the extremely high level of transmission, we would ask whether this level has changed sufficiently to warrant a return to full density on campus. What evidence is being used to support the conclusion that such a plan is safe?
In addition, we ask what policies regarding quarantine will apply to students, faculty, and other employees who test positive. The 13.2% positivity rate reported at Penn for the week of Jan. 2-8 alone is alarming. Will Penn be following the CDC’s recently reduced quarantine guidelines (which have forced people back to work while still contagious) or setting its own?
While the University may maintain that its decisions are based on the unlikelihood of classroom transmission, we note that those who teach at Penn do not simply exit their homes and enter the classroom but in many cases must commute via public transportation, eat in shared spaces if they do not have private offices, and assume many other exposure risks as part of the requirement that they be present on campus. We also note that childcare and school closures (and quarantining children) are already significantly impacting many members of the Penn community, a situation that will require some faculty, graduate students, and staff to teach or work remotely as a matter of necessity. We thus urge Penn to provide clear guidance and support to instructors and staff facing such issues.
Since many Penn employees and students have medical conditions themselves or vulnerable members of their households, we ask yet again that those who need reasonable accommodation be granted it promptly. Colleagues have shared troubling accounts of obstacles to their requests for accommodation. In one instance, an instructor with documented health issues was finally granted permission to teach online on the last day of the fall semester, only to be told that a new process for accommodation would be required and a fresh application would need to be submitted for the spring term. Experiences shared by our colleagues point to an accommodation request system that lacks transparency and consistency. Requests to teach remotely for reasons that have been approved in one program or division have apparently been denied without explanation in another, or have been approved by OAA only to be turned down by a dean. We are concerned that the process Penn has set up is both inequitable and overly burdensome, constituting more of a roadblock than a path to supporting student instruction.
The needs of students with medical vulnerabilities and disabilities are also being deprioritized by the return to in-person classes. What measures is Penn taking to ensure that our students do not have to choose between their academic progress and their health?
Finally, we underscore as a matter of academic freedom that it is the decision of instructors as experts in their fields what pedagogical methods and formats are most appropriate for delivering the material they teach. We further support the right of any instructors and staff who feel unsafe working on campus to work from home when circumstances warrant it.
If there is insufficient scientific evidence that the Omicron threat is significantly reduced at present, AAUP–Penn recommends an extension of remote teaching and work until conditions decisively improve.
[On 9/11/2021, the Executive Committee of AAUP–Penn issued this statement to the Office of the Provost:]
On behalf of hundreds of Penn instructors and staff who have reached out to AAUP–Penn for support, responded to our poll on safety measures, signed our colleagues’ petition, and submitted questions to the Faculty Senate that remain unanswered by administrators, we are writing to state three basic expectations for workplace safety. There is broad consensus that Penn must institute the following measures if the University expects faculty and staff to work productively and well this semester under potentially life-threatening conditions:
- Include classrooms automatically in contact tracing, and notify instructors and staff as well as students immediately of a positive result in a classroom in which they have worked. While Penn’s Wellness Office claims that classroom time does not qualify as “close contact,” we note that instructors, for instance, in a packed discussion seminar room may not be able to distance even three feet from students, and it is not a given that all students are fully complying with mask guidelines. Spending three hours or more per week per course in an enclosed space with large groups of people talking is, despite the University’s claims, not a “low-risk” scenario for transmission; at minimum, we expect to be notified automatically if we have been exposed. Rights to medical privacy can be fully protected while also informing instructors, staff, and students that people in their classrooms have tested positive.
- Institute and announce clear masking guidelines requiring a type of mask that provides good protection against prolonged indoor contact. In addition, provide high-quality PPE such as KN95 or N95 masks at no cost to everyone required to work or study on campus: students, faculty, staff and all categories of workers.
- AAUP–Penn asserts the autonomy of instructors to decide on the appropriate method of instruction, taking into account both pedagogical and safety needs of all concerned. Moreover, AAUP–Penn asserts the right of all employees—faculty and staff—to work under safe conditions and to adjust teaching formats or shift to remote work if changing circumstances warrant it (as so many of us were called to do during the first outbreak of Covid). As the University seems unprepared to recognize either of these principles at present, we ask the following at a minimum:
a) Grant immediate exemption from face-to-face teaching or from in-person work to anyone who requests it on the basis of stated medical or familial vulnerability, rather than requiring a lengthy review process or documentation that may not be easily obtainable under pandemic conditions.
b) Allow instructors and other employees whose work can be done remotely to do so when circumstances necessitate it. (If, for instance, a child under 12 is sent home to quarantine, no “backup” childcare options will exist for a family exposed to Covid; the University needs to recognize this fact, which could affect hundreds with unvaccinated children in schools and daycare.) While we appreciate that some Penn schools are now acknowledging (on very limited terms) the need for “interludes” of online teaching in cases where the instructor is sick or quarantined, the statements we have seen (from SAS, for example) fail to recognize what teaching entails. Not all classes can be taught on an emergency basis or for an extended time by a “substitute” in cases of illness, nor is there recognition of the amount of additional work, planning, and preparation that this would impose on both parties. The SAS guidelines of Sept. 9 also do not allow instructors to shift classes online in response to students contracting Covid unless the number of cases becomes significant. We insist that the threshold of acceptable risk to our health and to the lives of vulnerable family members should be set by those who are facing such risks.
The three measures outlined above are, in our view, fundamental. There are many additional measures that we and our colleagues would suggest, and information that is needed, including ventilation reports on all classrooms and more detailed and frequent updates to Penn’s Covid dashboard, once the above points have been addressed.
But the key principle at issue here bears stating directly: while our levels of comfort with the risks may vary, it should not be assumed that anyone—not faculty, building maintenance staff, graduate student instructors, office staff, cafeteria workers, librarians, RAs, etc.—has agreed to risk their lives and the lives of loved ones in order to do their jobs. We are now being asked to do that, despite the University’s downplaying of the (obviously uneven) risks, and we consequently insist that Penn take the necessary steps to address our well-founded concerns about safety at work and about the health of the community.
At yesterday’s Faculty Senate Webinar, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé described the coming semester of (mandatory) in-person work during an ongoing pandemic as learning to “dance in the rain.” It was not lost on us when, less than an hour later, our phones lit up with flash flood and tornado warnings.
We hope you are safe and well. If you attended the webinar too, you will have noticed that the administrators present evaded most of the questions asked. The Q&A chat during the event registered mounting frustration from faculty and staff with the prepared remarks being read.
Meanwhile, as we seek clarity on policies apparently being written and rewritten throughout the day, we note that those of us who have requested exemptions from face-to-face teaching have yet to hear anything back. We find it disturbing that while this opaque review process is pending, Penn would require instructors with medical risks and vulnerable family members to continue going into crowded classrooms for however long it takes for their requests to be approved (in some cases, with copious documentation required first). As a basic measure of trust and respect, in our view, faculty and staff with pressing health risks to themselves or to loved ones should be automatically approved on an emergency basis prior to review if such review cannot be completed promptly.
AAUP–Penn will continue to press Penn administrators to prioritize the health of the community over other interests and to recognize the autonomy of instructors (as experts in the fields they teach) to determine what modes of instruction are appropriate to their courses. The chapter’s leadership has explained our widely shared views in a short contribution to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Suvir Kaul and other members have spoken with a DP reporter as well.
Since this chapter is a collective effort by Penn colleagues and a member-led organization, further steps we take will rely on your involvement. For now, as a small starting point on the next statement we plan to make to the administration, we are asking you to help identify which safety measures and policy changes would be high priority on your list of demands for the current semester. To do that, we’ll be circulating a brief poll to our contact list and hope you will respond. If you are not on the list and would like to join, you can do so here.