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IOWA CITY — Faculty across Iowa’s three public universities are voicing disappointment that this fall’s COVID-19 conditions aren’t as improved as hoped and are urging administrators to make the tough call to backpedal on promises that this would be a more normal semester.
Additionally, University of Northern Iowa professors through their United Faculty union have filed a complaint against the Board of Regents with the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration for “failure to provide a safe work environment.”
“These are not normal times,” United Faculty leaders wrote over the weekend to peers and UNI administrators. “COVID remains a serious threat, and most of the strategies that kept us safe last year will not be in place this year.”
University of Iowa, Iowa State University and UNI faculty have written the regents, sent demands to administrators and launched petitions advocating mask and vaccine mandates. They’ve also asked that high-risk employees be allowed to work from home — despite regent rules.
UNI’’s faculty union got lawyers involved in dealing with the university’s protocols and with help in handling employee accommodation requests that are denied.
“Although you may have been told that it is illegal for you to make any inquiry to students on vaccination or other COVID questions, United Faculty has consulted our attorney and is encouraging members to offer to students a voluntary and anonymous survey on vaccination status, intention to mask, and other questions that would help you to make decisions in your classroom,” according to United Faculty’s email to colleagues and campus leadership.
“Sharing your results with United Faculty will also help to provide data on campus vaccinations that is otherwise unknown,” according to the email, which, while making demands of the regents and administrators, also urges faculty to take matters into their own hands in some instances.
“If you are one of the faculty who have been denied a COVID accommodation to teach virtually based on your own medical condition, please contact United Faculty for further guidance and legal advice,” according to the letter.
COVID-19 variants have driven up new case rates and hospitalizations statewide — including in the home counties of the UI, ISU, and UNI — just as thousands of students from across the country flood the campuses for the start of the fall semester Monday.
In May, as vaccines were rolling out broadly and infections were falling, the regents promised a return to college norms this fall, including pre-pandemic levels of in-person learning, football games and other campus activities.
Despite the subsequent surge driven by the delta variant, the board has not reversed course from its May directive.
Following the governor’s lead in barring K-12 schools from mandating masks, the board hasn’t backtracked on its prohibition against mask and distancing mandates or vaccine requirements on campus; and it hasn’t reimposed emergency waivers for staff such as those involving family care leave and catastrophic illness.
The universities likewise aren’t planning the same degree of case counting and contact tracing as last year. They aren’t asking students, faculty or staff to report vaccination status, saying that violates health privacy laws. They’ve erased many residence hall restrictions, and are allowing for more normal move-in experiences.
At UNI, the faculty is calling for a reversal.
“Specifically and most immediately, we ask for a mask mandate for UNI indoor campus spaces, shifts in classrooms to allow for greater social distancing, and mandating the COVID vaccine for employees and students once the vaccine has full FDA approval,” the petition says.
University of Iowa response
Although UI administrators have pulled down from a website controversial guidance from last week advising faculty to avoid any discussions with students at all about vaccines and masks, President Barbara Wilson told reporters Monday she doesn’t expect any new mandates requiring masks or vaccines on campus.
“I’m hoping that we don’t have to change what we’re doing,” she said. “I'm hoping many people will recognize that we're all in this together — this isn't a political issue, it's a health issue — and that more people decide this university matters, this community matters, and I'm going to do my part.”
UI faculty demands, posed in a petition, include reinstating flexible work arrangements for faculty and staff who can work from home; charging unvaccinated students, faculty and staff additional health fees or giving vaccinated students a tuition discount; requiring unvaccinated staff, students and faculty to be regularly tested; and letting faculty and staff meet with students online.
UI Provost Kevin Kregel said he expects the campus will move ahead with mostly in-person instruction. But Wilson and Kregel said they are watching the pandemic metrics, including the testing of wastewater from the dorms.
“We're going to be watching carefully to see what kind of reaction we get and encouraging our students to work with us,” Wilson said, hinting at a yet-to-be-announced safety campaign. “So far they seem pretty eager. They want to be here, and they understand the risks of acting in ways that might cause us to have to change that.”
ISU faculty warning
An ISU faculty letter pleading with President Wendy Wintersteen to reconsider mitigation measures for the upcoming semester also references dashed hopes of leaving the pandemic in the rearview mirror anytime soon.
ISU faculty surmised that if the Ames campus mirrors Iowa’s roughly 60-percent adult vaccination rate, “thousands of us are at heightened risk.”
“Breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are rare, but there have already been reports of breakthrough cases on campus,” states the letter, which lists two key demands:
- Complying with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that even vaccinated people wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission.
- Allowing faculty and staff to require masks in their own offices and to take other precautions.
“Iowa State University is an institution with a central mission in advancing science and technology,” according to the ISU Faculty Senate’s letter toe the regents. “It is the expectation of the faculty that the Board of Regents will act on scientifically-based health information when it establishes policies and procedures that affect the health and well-being of all who are part of the regents system.”
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