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Professors on many campuses say their administrations have ignored their concerns about teaching safely this fall, with COVID-19 case counts rising again due to the Delta variant. But professors at Northern Illinois University say they’ll feel comfortable returning to campus, thanks to an understanding reached this week between the tenured and tenure-track faculty union and the administration.

One key provision in that agreement is a two-part trigger for switching to remote instruction: when or if the campus positivity rate for COVID-19 surveillance tests reaches 8 percent, any instructor may choose to teach online. This differs from some other fall 2021 remote policies, where they exist, in that they typically involve beginning the semester online and continuing that way for a defined period of time (think the University of Texas at San Antonio’s three-week remote start).

Kerry Ferris, professor of sociology at Northern Illinois and president of the faculty union, said that she and colleagues pushed for a “hyperlocal” metric for going remote, as opposed to a set of criteria that felt more arbitrary or distant. And they settled on the 8 percent marker because that is the cautionary threshold by which the Illinois Department of Public Health monitors regions across the state.

“These are the cases and that is the level of transmission that is going to affect us,” Ferris said. “What’s happening in another part of the state doesn’t necessarily impact us.”

What does an 8 percent positivity rate look like? Ferris said the university never reached that level of transmission during the 2020-21 academic year, which ended with about 70 percent of courses online and 30 percent in person. (According to the university, weekly surveillance test positivity averaged 1-2 percent last year and some 75 percent of classes were taught online). This semester, Ferris said, about 70 percent of classes will be in person and 30 percent will be online. So, mindful of case counts rising rapidly elsewhere, the faculty union wanted to begin the year with a clear understanding of when classes would move online, if necessary.

“All we want is for people to be able to make the choices that allow them to feel safe,” Ferris said, adding that union members were surveyed about their preferences for the agreement. “This is a lesson in the importance of collective action.”

Also under the new agreement, professors who are immunocompromised or caretakers for someone who is immunocompromised may teach remotely from the start of the term.

Professors and students must also wear masks in instructional spaces, including the library, at all times.

Previously, the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty union and Northern Illinois had agreed on a student vaccination requirement, regular COVID-19 testing of students and professors, and the use of high-quality air filters in classrooms. These points are all included in the new memorandum of understanding, as well. Classroom density is capped at 75 percent.

Ferris said the union and the university have worked well together to establish community safety guidelines since March 2020. That doesn’t mean this set of provisions was achieved without a fight, however: failing to have secured an MOU for this fall, and with the start of the semester looming, the union held a rally last week on campus. Just a few days later, a formal agreement was reached.

“We got some of everything we wanted, and that’s of course the way negotiations work,” Ferris said.

Unions, including faculty and graduate student unions, have been effective vehicles for pandemic planning negotiations on quite a few campuses. Bill Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said that faculty members, students and staff have used collective bargaining, along with shared governance, to “successfully transition to remote work and establish emergency contingency plans.”

Northern Illinois’s new agreement, in particular, shows how collective bargaining can be “a means for creative responses at a time of legitimate heightened health and safety concerns,” he said.

In general, Herbert added, “A collaborative approach through bargaining and labor-management discussions on reopening issues is the best means for protecting administrators, faculty, staff and students and avoiding litigation under federal and state health and safety laws -- particularly in light of the existence of the virus variant and changing federal and state guidance.”

As for what any agreements might stipulate, Herbert said that colleges and universities and unions “have trained health and safety staff who can assist in developing data-based and flexible reopening policies at a time of continued health and safety uncertainties.”

Joe King, spokesperson for Northern Illinois, said the university has a "strong working relationship" with its tenured and tenure-track faculty union and its non-tenure-track faculty union, both of which "came forward this summer with a list of concerns from their membership." The unions’ concerns centered on "having a safe campus environment and protecting their vulnerable faculty, which are shared issues of importance to all involved. As with any bargaining process, there was discussion back-and-forth to reach agreement on how to operationalize those important priorities." 

Having a faculty union doesn’t ensure successful faculty-administrative collaboration on reopening, though -- especially on an issue that’s become as politicized as COVID-19. The faculty union at the University of Northern Iowa, for example, recently filed a complaint against the state’s Board of Regents with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration over what the union describes as the board’s “failure to provide a safe working environment.”

In a standing policy statement written in May, the board encourages vaccination but doesn’t require it, says masks will not be required on campus and otherwise signals a return to business as usual for fall. Chris Martin, professor of digital journalism and vice president of the American Association of University Professors-affiliated faculty union at Northern Iowa, said this policy “hardly reflects the conditions of a new wave of COVID-19, led by the Delta variant, and ties the hands of Iowa’s public universities to make good health and safety decisions.”

The Iowa board should reinstate a mask mandate for public universities and require vaccination for students, faculty and staff members once the vaccines gain full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, Martin said.

In addition to the OSHA complaint, Martin’s union petitioned the board for provisions similar to those in the Northern Illinois agreement, namely, establishing “clear and transparent benchmark data to trigger decisions for moving online and returning to face-to-face instruction.”

Northern Iowa said in a statement that it is aware of the OSHA complaint and is waiting to learn more about the filing. The university said it continues to follow the regents’ guidelines “and encourages but does not require wearing a mask on campus. We are also strongly encouraging all students, faculty staff and visitors to receive their COVID-19 vaccination to protect their own health as well as the health of others.”


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