Community College Shuts Off Remote Work

Most classes are still remote at Hagerstown Community College, but staff and faculty have had VPN access revoked and must now return to campus to work.

September 2, 2020
 
Courtesy of Hagerstown Community College's Flickr account
President Jim Klauber talks at a donor event in 2019.

Students at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland will be attending class online this fall, except for labs and hands-on disciplines. Many colleges are doing the same as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ebb and flow across the nation.

But faculty and staff members at Hagerstown are being required to report to campus, despite safety concerns. The college's president says this is meant to protect the technological security of Hagerstown, but the move demonstrates tensions that can play out on college campuses where administrators want to see employees in offices instead of on Zoom. It also creates a tricky situation under employment law, according to one legal expert.

The college on Aug. 17 sent out an email, which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed, notifying faculty and staff that access to its virtual private network was being shut off. VPNs allow employees to use an institution's private network while on public internet networks. Many companies and organizations require employees to use VPNs when working remotely for security reasons.

Staff at Hagerstown must now go into their offices to work because they can't access the VPNs. The change was announced in a July email from the president, Jim Klauber. The same email also indicated the college would soon not require students to make appointments for services, once again allowing them to show up without warning.

"On Monday, August 17th we are going to resume a normal 5 day work week. It is time for us to be back on campus, full time, and ready to serve students," the email said. "We are probably going to be moving away from the appointment only service model pretty soon (like before the 17th). So get ready for that. It is coming."

Klauber also told faculty and staff to unlock their office doors when at work.

"We are a community college that serves the community. Few students are even in the buildings. I can only assume that when I come upon a locked office or department, the occupants are on leave. At that point, I will ensure that Human Resources charges them with that leave appropriately," he wrote.

Klauber also said VPN access would be shut off in August, and laptops that were checked out by staff would need to be returned.

Starting at the beginning of September, faculty and staff were allowed to apply for VPN access. Access will be provided at the discretion of supervisors and human resources, who will determine if the employee requires it. Otherwise, they will have to report to work in person.

Access was taken away because it's a security risk, according to Klauber. The college had also provided about 50 laptops to employees over the summer, but they're now needed to stock computer labs for students, he said.

Klauber added that he believed a disgruntled employee had told Inside Higher Ed of the new policy. He said that employee likely will not get VPN access.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some employees at Hagerstown had access to VPNs, he said, and most were provided access once the college shut down campus in the spring. The college decided to revoke all VPN access so it could review requests and bring the number of people with VPNs down to a manageable amount, Klauber said.

"We felt it would be better to reassess everyone’s need to have VPNs," he said. ​

When asked to respond to those who may disagree with the VPN decision, Klauber said it's part of their job.

"​We have to make these decisions. We take into account all factors," he said. "If an employee is disgruntled, then they’re disgruntled. We have to look at the total needs of the college."

Tricky Situation

Inside Higher Ed provided copies of the emails it received to Hagerstown. A spokeswoman for the college provided the following statement:

"Since we have returned to in-person office operations, we stand by the decision to recall VPN access and reissue it on an as-needed basis, in order to protect the IT security of the college, employees and students. Upon return from remote operations, a few employees locked their office doors, which prevented student access in areas that were promoted as being open. This was isolated, contained and addressed through proper channels."

Members of the Faculty Assembly did not respond to requests for comment.

Legally, the situation at Hagerstown is tricky, according to R. Scott Oswald, managing principal of the Employment Law Group, P.C., which represents employees and whistle-blowers.

"An individual does not have to return to work, even in a situation where the new leave laws do not apply, if they reasonably believe that their employer is not following federal, state or local guidance on creating a safe or healthful workplace," Oswald said, referring to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires public companies with fewer than 500 employees to offer paid leave for employees who need to take care of family or children due to the coronavirus. "The fact that the university has affirmatively removed employees’ ability to work remotely suggests bad faith."

If an employee believes, in good faith, that the college isn't following proper guidelines, they can protest, Oswald said. The college would either have to change its policies or allow the employee to work remotely.

"​If the employer fires an employee under that circumstance, the employer better be right," he said. "If it violated any state or local mandate, it will now be in a situation where it’s facing a potential wrongful discharge suit."

Employers in Maryland are required to ensure people follow social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Klauber made mask wearing inside buildings mandatory starting July 27.

"As I told you a couple of weeks ago, I had high hopes of keeping mask wear optional. Actually, I would have liked to be done with it all by now, but that is not where we are. After listening to your concerns, starting on Monday masks are required in all buildings on campus," he wrote in an email announcing the move. "The only exceptions are your personal office space and common work areas (such as behind the counters in Financial Aid or Admissions) where employees are socially distanced from students and one another."

Campus visitors are also required to check themselves in using the Go Evo phone app, which has students and employees check in and self-assess for COVID-19 symptoms. If the person is at risk of spreading the virus, the app will tell them to stay home and alert their supervisor automatically.

Klauber remained optimistic in the college's ability to stay open in an email sent to staff last week, writing that the college may get an enrollment boost as residential campuses again switch to remote learning.

"Dormitories, COVID parties, and university life just do not mix with the virus, and that university model is very different from our own. They are closing and going remote while we can probably get by," he said. "Now that does not mean we get lax in our activities. To the contrary, we need to step up everything we are doing. Use the app, check the app with your students or visitors, make sure people are wearing masks and are social distancing. Wash your hands!"

He also told staff to be patient with students as they get comfortable with using the health-screening app.

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