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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

In Letter, ISU Faculty And Staff Say Reopening Plan Comes Up Short

Woman carries tray of salad
Illinois State University
Event Management, Dining, and Hospitality Services Culinary Assistant Rachel Anderson slides a tray of salads onto a cart in the prep kitchen at the Watterson Dining Commons.

UPDATED 3:05 p.m. | A letter circulating Tuesday among employees and students argues that Illinois State University’s draft reopening plan does not do enough to protect campus—or the Bloomington-Normal community at large.

The letter suggests giving more employees the option to work from home, requiring students to sign a “Redbird pledge” to behave responsibly, and creating a free on-campus testing site, among other ideas. The letter already had 250 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon from faculty, staff, students, and community members. It's addressed to President Larry Dietz.

Olcay Akman, a math professor who has studied the spread of COVID-19, signed it.

He said reopening a college campus is way different than opening, say, a local business, because those returning to ISU could be coming from other states or even other countries—where mask and distancing practices vary widely.

“Bringing the student population back to ISU’s campus will have an impact not only on ISU stakeholders—students, parents, employees—but also McLean County residents. In my opinion, this should be done with more openly, more transparent, with more inclusive planning including all members of the community,” Akman said.

Planning for Health, Safety, and Equity at ISU by Ryan Denham on Scribd

The letter raises several concerns with ISU’s draft reopening plan, dubbed Redbirds Return. That plan says face coverings will “be the norm on campus,” but it doesn’t provide “clear, specific guidance that ensures that employees are not put at additional risk by being forced to deal with unmasked individuals,” the letter says.

“These guidelines must be unambiguous to ensure that questions of interpretation on the policy are not outsourced to individual employees,” the letter says.

The letter recommends a proactive education effort about why distancing and masks are important. It also calls for a mandatory “Redbird pledge statement that lays out in clear terms the rules and guidelines for student behavior on and off campus, and any sanctions for non-compliance.” That includes use of masks.

Testing and screening

The letter suggests giving more employees the option to telework. It says “all employees working on campus should engage in daily symptom and temperature checks, should leave work if symptoms appear, and then should undergo testing as soon as possible.” It suggests increasing employee sick and personal leave time to help ensure “that there are no disincentives for employees making the correct choice to isolate or quarantine themselves if they are ill or have come into contact with someone who is.”

The letter also calls for ISU to go further with testing. The current Redbirds Return plan says only that “campus personnel continue to meet with McLean County public health officials, testing providers, and other partners to develop robust on-campus capabilities.” The letter argues that ISU should require students to be tested for the coronavirus prior to coming back in August. Meanwhile, ISU should also offer free, on-campus testing at will for any ISU community member, the letter says.

Other testing plans are emerging at campuses around the country. Bradley University in Peoria plans to test a random sampling of students, faculty, and staff every week, from August through November. Another challenge: Around 10% of McLean County’s coronavirus patients were asymptomatic when they tested positive.

Akman said it’s not impossible to bring students back to campus in August.

“To have it done safely, a robust health infrastructure should be in place, such as extensive testing procedures, and very well thought out, designed social distancing policies,” Akman said “If they’re all done properly, I think it can be done (safely). However, since … (faculty) were not part of the entire decision-making process, we don’t know whether these policies are being implemented.”

Indeed, other faculty and staff have also raised concerns about how much input they have had in the Redbirds Return planning.

There are 18 different working groups, focused on areas such as Academic Continuity (the largest one), Housing, Dining, and International Programs. An ISU spokesperson said recently that faculty played a role in the working groups throughout the process.

“There are a lot of unknown details, and it varies from workforce to workforce what that will mean,” said Renee Nestler, staff representative for the AFSCME Council 31 union that represents building service workers, dining staff, grounds crews, clerical staff, and others.

One of the top concerns is how to achieve compliance with masks, Nestler said.

“Our union is on the back end of the conversation,” she said. “It’s ‘here comes the plans,’ and the various committees are all making the decisions and detailing it out, and we learn about it after the fact. I wouldn’t qualify us as being in the conversation.”

Shared governance

Initially, ISU’s communication about the COVID-19 emergency was “fuzzy, kind of confusing occasionally," said Stuart Palmer, chair of the Civil Service Council and an advisor in ISU’s Honors Program. Civil service employees perform a wide range of jobs at ISU, from support staff to grounds workers to communications professionals.

But more recently, ISU’s administration has been more collaborative with its shared-governance partners, including the Civil Service Council, Palmer said.

“ISU has a long history of successful shared governance and (Administrative/Professional and Civil Service) employees are regularly included in the decision-making process and their voices valued at the departmental, college, and university levels,” said A/P Council chair Ron Gifford, assistant chair in the Department of History. “At this critical time in ISU’s history, we simply want to ensure that shared governance continues to be on the forefront of the planning process so decisions can be made in the best interest of all constituents."

Flexibility will be key, said Palmer, who was not involved with the letter. Spring 2021 is also full of questions, he said, with the timeline for a vaccine still unknown.

“We’re obviously excited to have students back on campus, and have some semblance of normalcy as the fall semester begins. But we also know that bringing 20,000 students, faculty, and staff back from not just other parts of Illinois but from states experiencing large spikes in COVID-19 cases—it’s a concern. It’s the fear of the unknown,” Palmer said.

“What’s that going to look like? How is it actually going to play out when you bring that many people back to the community?”

Partially as a result of the letter, Academic Senate chair Susan Kalter said Wednesday she has called an all-faculty meeting for July 16 via Zoom to discuss "serious matters" related to the reopening.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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