University of Miami Professors and Students Protest Reopening Plan

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Some professors are anxious about returning to the classroom.
As the University of Miami (UM) prepares for the return of in-person classes this fall amid rising COVID-19 cases, faculty members, janitorial staff, and students are protesting the university's reopening plan, saying some of the people most at risk were not properly consulted.

Administrators are giving students two options for classes starting in the fall: They can either take their courses online and learn from home, or they can come to campus for a "hybrid" system, going to class in person some days and learning online on others. But that same choice was not afforded to the faculty, according to Scot Evans, an associate professor at UM.

Evans is president of UM's chapter of the American Association of University Professors and a member of the faculty senate. He says that the reopening plan was put together with little input from faculty members about how classes should be run and that professors reluctant to risk their health by teaching classes in person have no alternative.

"Lots of decisions are being made without meaningful input from faculty," Evans tells New Times. "We don't have a problem with students having the choice — it's how that decision was made that's the issue. We would've been able to better construct what that means for the teaching environment."

Because many universities are suffering from a drop in revenue thanks to the coronavirus, Evans says the school might be pushing to resume in-person learning so it can charge full tuition and stay afloat. UM is among several institutions that have been sued for charging full tuition despite providing online-only instruction since March.

The financial predicament aside, some professors are anxious about returning to the physical classroom.

"There are a lot of members in our chapter and in the faculty senate that would've advocated more strongly for fully online," Evans says.

As it stands, professors will be expected to teach students who show up in person as well as those who are listening online. There has even been talk about installing Plexiglas at the front of classrooms to protect teachers while they're lecturing.

As a result of their mounting disappointment with being left out of the conversation, Evans and over 500 other faculty members have signed a petition asking that professors have the right to choose between in-person and remote teaching.

"In light of this grave situation, we affirm that all teachers should have the right to choose whether to teach in person or remotely, in accordance with their personal circumstances and with their own values and priorities, just as our students have been given the right to choose whether they are willing and able to learn in the classroom," the petition states.

Some of the professors who signed the petition chose to remain anonymous. Evans says that might be because they are not tenured and are therefore fearful of losing their jobs for speaking out.

The petition was sent yesterday to UM president Julio Frenk, provost Jeffrey Duerk, and faculty senate leadership. In a response provided via email through a spokesperson, Duerk told New Times that faculty members were able to submit a request for accommodations and modifications.

"Planning for a safe fall reopening — on-campus and in-person — is a complex process that began as soon as we pivoted to virtual learning last March, and we continue to work with faculty, deans, the Faculty Senate, Student Affairs, Facilities Operations & Planning, and numerous public health experts on safe solutions," Duerk wrote in the email.

But Evans says teachers are only offered accommodations if they have pre-existing health conditions, not if they flat-out feel uncomfortable teaching in person. A message to the faculty from Duerk said teachers should have "continuity plans" if they fall ill, including plans for finding a substitute. Evans says the joke going around faculty circles is that they need to elect a "designated survivor."

The faculty senate is holding a special meeting later today to discuss reopening; Frenk and Duerk have been invited.

In addition to the faculty petition, a student group called the Miami Employee Student Alliance (MESA) has gathered more than 1,500 signatures on a petition asking the university to take better care of its subcontracted workers, including janitorial and dining staff.

"There's a whole spectrum of labor issues going on at the university, and we intend on taking a collaborative stance with all workers affected by the university's response to the pandemic," says Mars Fernandez, a Ph.D. psychology student and a member of MESA.

Fernandez says she and other MESA members have been in touch with several workers who say they haven't been given proper protective equipment despite being essential personnel for keeping the campus sanitized. She says some workers are given one surgical mask per week and are told to bring their own water from home because all water fountains on campus have been turned off during the pandemic.

UM subcontracts janitorial workers through ABM Industries, a facilities-management company. Janitors and groundskeepers are technically ABM employees, but Fernandez says some of them have worked at UM for decades and are just as much a part of the university community as students and teachers are.

Esteban Wood, an undergraduate student and co-founder of MESA, says the university hides behind the economic relationship of subcontracting, and it's hypocritical of UM to not make sure workers are protected.

"We have this motto, 'Canes care for Canes,' that we are all part of the UM community, so we have to recognize that and help out. The university is taking a stance that subcontracted workers are not Canes, and we don't feel the same way," Wood says.

The MESA petition calls for UM to require that subcontracted workers receive paid time off, hazard pay, and adequate protective gear. The group plans to deliver the petition to Frenk's office today around noon and then have a brief rally on campus.

"The administration has to bear witness to poor treatment with subcontracted workers," says Fernandez. "It's our role to pressure the university to maintain certain standards."