New York, NY – The loss of nearly 50 City University of New York [CUNY] employees to the COVID-19 crisis is forcing the union representing faculty and staff, as well as the heads of Hunter College Campus Schools [HCCS], to urge the delay of in-person classes scheduled for Wednesday.
The gravely concerned who took part in an August 21 emergency press conference online, say the delay should continue until the system’s 300 buildings meet state guidelines for safety.
“It is clear from mounting evidence that the primary concern in the transmission of COVID-19 is aerosol transmission,” PSC-CUNY President Barbara Bowen said. “The key is good ventilation, but we have CUNY buildings that have suffered from underfunding and racialized austerity.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams issued a report to address the $82 million gap in the Tuition Assistance Program [TAP] for CUNY schools in December 2019.
According to Dr. Jean Grassman, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, the dominant route of coronavirus transmission is through the air by respiratory aerosols, tiny particles that travel many meters when we speak, cough, exhale or sing. The aerosols are capable of easily crossing a typical classroom and can actually be spread farther by a HVAC system with inadequate filtration.
“Those buildings had enough problems that weren’t thoroughly addressed and we have been provided with no proof yet that those buildings have been made safe,” said Bowen. “We should not have to risk our lives to go to work.”
CUNY has already announced that 94-percent of classes will be conducted virtually and a majority of employees will be working online.
“Under their estimates, there are 1,000 faculty and 10,000 professionals that were staffed in all the categories who could be working on campus,” said Bowen. “That may not be that high, but even one person exposed to COVID-19 in this crisis, in this moment is one too many. CUNY already has the distinction of losing more faculty and staff than any university in the country.”
The New York State guidelines requires that stakeholders like faculty, staff, students and unions have a say in reopening plans, according to Bowen.
“Many of the plans at CUNY do not reflect this,” said Bowen. “We understand the importance of hands on learning like training in dental technology, training to be an EMT – we understand those things, particularly in this economic moment. We believe it’s possible to conduct some of that work safely, but we have not been provided the proof that it is safe. Until that is provided, we cannot say it’s alright for CUNY to call anyone back to work, not even one person.”
HCCS consists of K-to-12 schools that are scheduled to open on September 10.
“I’m a teacher among the faculty at the Campus Schools and I want nothing more than to get back into teaching our students in person, but our building, which is fondly referred to as the ‘Brick Prison’ is just not ready,” said Tina Moore. “It has a terrible design and almost no classrooms have windows. It has an HVAC system that can’t even handle the state-of-the-art MERV-13 filters.”
HCCS was established within Hunter College in 1869, but was later moved to its own building in 1977, which was an armory that was built in 1895 and consists of tiny half windows in a few classrooms.
The MERV-13 air filters can filter 90-percent of particles in the air that can be smaller than a single strand of hair.
“They are vital to minimizing the spread of the virus,” said Moore of the filters. “There is also school construction still going on [at HCCS].”
The construction on HCCS will be finished in September, according to Moore.
“They expect students and teachers to be in the building while they spend a few weeks conducting tests and we have to be there while they are making sure that it is safe,” said Moore. “We have asked to have an independent report that is agreed upon by the union to have someone to come into the building and conduct a walk through, that request was denied.”
Juvanie Piquant, a student of the CUNY NYC College of Technology and vice chair of Legislative Affairs for the CUNY University Student Senate, was also on the emergency press conference.
“I stand in solidarity with PSC’s sentiments in regards to making sure that all buildings are safe, and that they are safe in all aspects,” said Piquant. “Many students are concerned, they are unemployed, they are housing insecure and food insecure.”
Mental health services are lacking and CUNY is still imposing a tuition hike during the crisis, according to Piquant, a Law and Paralegal major.
“Many students cannot fathom that CUNY will be raising tuition at this time,” said Piquant. “I met a student at York College who said there was mold in the classroom. This is the City University of New York that students are going into.”
Black and brown students will be hit the hardest by the problems within CUNY, according to Piquant, who is Haitian-American.
“Elected officials like to say that we support CUNY, we love CUNY but we need elected officials to show up,” said Piquant. “We need elected officials to make education a higher priority. We cannot move forward and reimagine New York City in this new decade with this new movement that we are going towards without putting the City University of New York at the forefront.”
PSC-CUNY has issued 10 demands of CUNY to fulfill by Aug. 26, according to Bowen.
“One of those demands is no tuition hike and no wellness fee,” said Bowen.
The other demands include saving staff, faculty, graduate employees and other professional CUNY jobs, bargaining on class sizes, including faculty government bodies in decisions, and adhering to nationally safety guidelines.
“The health and safety of students and faculty at our schools and universities is paramount,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, who has HCCS and 11 CUNY schools in her borough. “As we confront the impacts of COVID-19, leaders must work to ensure that safety protocols, adequate circulation and ventilation, sufficient PPE, and effective testing and tracing are in place before we reopen CUNY and Hunter College Campus Schools for in-person learning.”