“A collapse of infrastructure.” Michigan State University Unions Challenge COVID-19 Policies on Campus

Michael Albani is a Michigan State University graduate student who teaches in a small classroom filled with students. Not much room for social distancing, he says. He had a few days when a third of his students were sick.

His partner lives more than 170 miles in the Chicago suburbs to be near his doctors. Albani’s partner has gone through a liver transplant and cancer – severely immunocompromised during a seemingly endless pandemic.

Albani does not feel safe coming down to see her because based on “how inadequate the COVID tracking has been” (at MSU), he cannot be sure the students in his class are safe.

“Because I’m in such close contact, I don’t feel comfortable traveling to see my partner. Because I don’t know what I would do if I inadvertently wore something I gave him and put his life in danger, ”he said.

“MSU, as an institution, prioritizes its benefits over the safety of all those who operate it. “

Albani, represented by the MSU Graduate Employees Union, is one of many employees who say they feel insecure as Michigan State University grapples with a fall semester in person during the COVID pandemic -19.

The graduate students ‘union and the non-tenured professors’ union have spoken out particularly on university policies, calling for more transparency with contact tracing and flexibility with class formats.

“We want MSU to stand up and do the right thing. Despite what other universities are doing, I’m so sick of hearing, “Well, at least we have a vaccine and a mask warrant.” If it would take away the need for us all to worry about each other, ”said Kate Birdsall, president of the teachers’ union at MSU.

The concerns of union members are as follows:

Go online

The crux of the protest on the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty campus this Thursday was to ask the administration to recognize instructors’ requests to go online.

UNTF union president Kate Birdsall said the university and the union, along with the Graduate Employees Union, had agreed to a memorandum of understanding where instructors could discuss temporary shifts in line with their immediate supervisors in the event of a COVID case.

But, she says, she noticed that the provost’s office was getting more and more involved in the process. Many requests were refused.

“My bargaining unit is made up of highly educated and well-trained professionals. And we believe that we are capable of making good decisions for ourselves, for our students and for our families, ”she said. And the university is basically saying, ‘No, you’re not going to make these decisions. “And we have a real problem with that.

She points out that most instructors don’t want a permanent change online – but not all college classrooms are one big conference room with someone in the front, behind plexiglass. Classes can be collaborative and often close together.

MSU defines “close contact” such as “more than 15 minutes – within six feet of a confirmed case of COVID-19”.

“It’s very rare that I go a day of teaching without being within six, heck, even three feet, of students who may or may not be contagious,” Birdsall said.

Michigan State University spokesperson Dan Olsen told Michigan Radio, “While unit administrators make reasonable efforts to respond to requests when they are compatible with operations, protocol agreement does not require these changes to be granted. “

Contacts search

Union members like Albani and leaders also want a more robust contact tracing program.

MSU’s triage line works with the Ingham County Health Department to tracking and notifications. But Birdsall said the current system is not clear to them.

Students and employees also call the triage line to report cases themselves. However, MSU employees described long waits, sometimes hours, before reaching someone.

“We recognize and apologize for the long wait times on our COVID-19 triage line at the start of the semester. Thanks, in part, to the additional resources added to the triage line, callers now have little or no wait when calling for help, ”said Olsen. He told the Lansing State Journal that there were staff shortages.

Although not part of the contact tracing process, MSU and the University of Michigan both shut down the notification system for “informal” contact with someone with COVID. This confused members of both unions. Birdsall said a notification system could help instructors get a better idea of ​​where their class is.

“It’s almost like asking for transparency, the university has gone the other way,” Birdsall said.

Vaccination and COVID data

Michigan State University, which forces students to be vaccinated, has nearly a 90% complete vaccination rate among students, staff and faculty. (It is not broken down into groups.)

Carol Prahinski is a member of the university’s Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty, which is tasked by her union to assess the school’s data. She said MSU’s self-reported vaccination form did not require lot numbers and was concerned that this meant there was no way for the university to verify the numbers with the state. Other members of the MSU union confirm that the form did not ask users to upload a photo of their vaccination card, but asked for information such as the dates of the first dose.

MSU spokesman Dan Olsen confirmed that the lot number was optional.

“This information, along with internal systems, can be used to verify immunizations within our university community,” he said. “The university also reserves the right to request additional documentation on vaccination status if necessary. MSU is focused on following up on complaints filed with our malpractice hotline alleging falsified vaccination status, each of which is fully investigated. “

Michigan State University is not yet listed on the state health department Monitoring the COVID epidemic. This contrasts with the state’s second-largest school, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which sees more than 500 ongoing cases linked to an outbreak.

What parents need to know about reporting the COVID-19 outbreak at school

Outbreaks are different from cases because they need to be epidemiologically linked, Ingham County health official Linda Vail said during a press briefing on Tuesday. She said that last year, and possibly even this year, many reports of outbreaks in schools were in fact only cumulative cases.

A system change that has had an impact on graduate students

Ava Hill, spokesperson for the Union of Graduate Employees, said the human resources system for graduate students changed before the fall semester. The deployment resulted in many graduate students failing to get their health insurance or salary. And, in some cases, both.

Hill said some didn’t find out they didn’t have health insurance until they traveled to the doctor or taken prescriptions – then were turned down or stuck with a big bill.

“We had people come to tell us that they were rationing the pills or trying to decide whether or not to pay rent or buy food that week. This put a lot of graduate students in a really horrible situation which was made worse by the fact that they had to go and teach in person when it was particularly dangerous for their health. “

MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen explained in an email that MSU has implemented two major systems in the past year, including the Student Information System and the Student Disbursement System. financial aid.

“These new systems have some shortcomings and their interfacing with other systems does not always work properly. It required corrective action and the university worked tirelessly to address it. The issue of health coverage has been completely resolved and many issues related to scholarship disbursements have also been resolved.

That said, all units and staff have been instructed to make resolving these issues a top priority and to immediately notify the Graduate School when an issue affecting a student is identified so that they can help resolve it. quickly and appropriately. The university also offers short-term university loans to help those who are still facing scholarship disbursement issues and need immediate financial assistance. Interest on these loans will be waived for these students.

During Thursday’s protest, Hill said several graduate students are still being ignored and that she wants to see a refund for those students.

Beyond the requirements

Kate Birdsall, professor of writing and American culture, took over as UNTF chair in March 2020 – just before the spread of COVID became apparent in the United States.

She remembered the outgoing president chatting with her in the hallway and casually saying, “I think you should just handle this COVID case, right?

Since then, she has maintained a good relationship with the employee relations office. But “never in a million years did I expect to lead a public health crusade at this university,” she said.

Initially, she said she believed MSU had handled the pandemic well. Then something changed, she said, and then it felt like the school was pretending it was 2019.

“We always expected the university to take care of us,” she said. “But when we started to take these things for granted … what I saw was just an infrastructure collapse.”

Instructors describe the anxiety, the extra work to adjust to their classes, the hyper-consciousness of someone coughing behind their masks – all trying to provide the best experience for their students.

But they see these same fears reflected in some of their students. Prahinski said there was an acceptable change in the new class of students as she cycled through Michigan State University campus.

“I don’t see spontaneous joy anymore,” she said. “I don’t see people bursting with joy and laughing and dancing or the crazy things kids were doing. It is a serious group of children.

Editor’s Note: MSU is one of Michigan Radio’s corporate sponsors.

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