University of Michigan Faculty Blasts COVID-19 Rules For Distance Learning

ANN ARBOR, MI – As COVID-19 cases at the University of Michigan continue to decline, its faculty still pointed out several issues with preventative guidelines on Monday.

During the UM faculty’s Senate meeting on October 4, the faculty supported four motions aimed at adding more coronavirus restrictions on campus. An additional motion was submitted at the meeting calling for targeted improvements to the UM guidelines on sexual misconduct.

Read more: New guidelines would not have stopped former provost sexual harassment, University of Michigan faculty argues

Filings included convicting Work Connections, the UM program that decides on medical exemptions that allow teachers to work remotely. Other requests called for more extensive testing for vaccinated students as well, brought back campus-wide notifications for close contact with COVID-19, and allowed more autonomy for teachers in choosing distance learning.

The teachers were also able to confront President Mark Schlissel and Probstess Susan Collins on these issues during the question-and-answer session on Monday. Schlissel and Collins responded to the requests in an email last week.

“The resolutions together leave the impression that COVID-19 is worsening on our campus,” both wrote. “The facts tell a different story.”

COVID-19 cases across Ann Arbor campus have dropped each week since moving in late August to a low of 55 cases in the week of September 26, according to the UM database. Positive test rates have been below 2% every week since August 8th.

Read more: COVID-19 cases continue to decline on University of Michigan campus. Students, lecturers explain why.

Work Connections needs to be revised to reject too many requests for distance learning and to endanger immunocompromised teachers, said application sponsor Silke-Maria Weineck, professor of Germanic languages.

“If you were at high risk of developing a serious, potentially fatal breakthrough case of COVID, and your own doctor confirms that you should not teach in person under the conditions we have created in UM where social distancing has been abolished,” a case manager at Work Connections has the power to overrule your doctor and inform your dean that you must swallow it, ”she said at the October 4th meeting.

Weineck, who also published her views in a Sept. 23 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, conceded that, technically, Work Connections does not have the final say on whether or not a teacher is teaching remotely. That power rests with the deans, although they “transfer” work connections “in practice,” she said.

Collins defended Work Connections on the same point the deans eventually made plans for the return to face-to-face learning, including waiver requests through Work Connections. The university announced its vaccine mandate in late July and its mask mandate for indoor teaching on August 9. The moving-in week began about two weeks later on August 25th.

“The deans were tasked with determining how we should get back to work and where that work should be done, especially for teaching,” she said. “This reflects a longstanding practice that deans are responsible for the integrity and quality of the academic programs under their control.”

Deans don’t always act in the best medical interests of their professors, said Ramon Satyendra, professor of music theory.

“When I called Work Connections, they said President Schlissel wants me in the classroom,” he said. “When I spoke to my dean, he said that President Schlissel wants me in the classroom.”

On Monday, Schlissel repeated a point from last week’s letter which stated that “the vast majority of trainers have not requested accommodation” and “the number of those who want to work remotely is extremely small”. He cited 28 formal requests made this fall to teach remotely “from a total of 8,500 faculty at all three UM locations”.

He said four of the requests were for “improved accommodation” support. Fifteen inquiries were missing the necessary medical records, which ranged from a medical certificate to other medical information, he said. One application has been withdrawn and another has nothing to do with COVID-19, he said.

“Please note that these numbers do not include the 51 ongoing cases that are not specific to distance learning requests where Work Connections provides assistance due to severe, persistent illness or disability,” he wrote, “of which eight are COVID-related “.

Those people with rejected requests “still deserve our sympathy,” said Weineck.

“We owe them protection, our compassion,” she said, pushing for more distance learning opportunities. “Everyone was ordered back into the classroom, including the instructors, whose doctors rated the risk for personal instruction as too high.”

The second application was made by Michael Atzmon, a professor of nuclear engineering, who required tests for vaccinated students. He also proposed that the exemption for notifying vaccinated persons in close contact with an infected person should be lifted.

The intensified tests would show “meaningful data” showing that there is transmission of COVID-19 in classrooms, Atzmon said.

“We shouldn’t be fooled (the UM COVID-19 dashboard),” he said. “Vaccinated people perpetuate the silent spread of the virus. We are told that we will not see any spread in the classroom. Of course we don’t see that because we don’t have any meaningful data. “

Related: Vaccinated people could spread viruses but are still well protected against serious illness and death, CDC says

Schlissel said while the dashboard, verified by reporting by the Washtenaw County Health Department, showed no spread in the classroom, “that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” This is a language change from his letter which simply stated that “Classrooms have not been linked to confirmed transmission of COVID-19”.

The third request came from Kentaro Toyama, a computer science professor, who requested that each department have the final say on whether or not teachers are allowed to teach remotely. This would be a level below the deans.

The current model takes “flexibility in the workplace,” said Lydia Kelow-Bennett, professor of African American and African Studies, to support Toyama’s proposal.

More distributed autonomy in workplace flexibility would “cause unpredictable disruptions for many students,” wrote Schlissel and Collins in their letter last week.

The last of the COVID-19 applications came from Benjamin Paloff, a professor of Slavic language and literature. It called for more housing for trainers with immunocompromised family members who lived with them.

He also opposed the “offensive” claim by Schlissel and Collins that teachers disturbed students by distance learning. The mission is to provide education to students, he said, and his proposal puts teachers in the best position to do so.

“Nobody teaches me the importance of fulfilling this mission,” he said. “My suggestion is that if we were to change the policy that allows teachers to switch to online learning in the short term, that would somehow open the floodgates for inquiries. I find that deeply offensive. “

In their letter last week, Schlissel and Collins concluded that as a “residential university” it is important to emphasize on-campus engagement.

“It is important to return to the general expectation that teachers will be available for volunteering on campus,” they wrote, “naturally in compliance with UM guidelines and procedures for teachers with special health needs.”

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