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NIU faculty lament lack of consultation prior to university releasing COVID-19 re-entry plan

Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman speaks Thursday during the unveiling and dedication ceremony of the new sculpture, Huskie Pride, in the Martin Luther King Jr. Commons at NIU.
Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman speaks Thursday during the unveiling and dedication ceremony of the new sculpture, Huskie Pride, in the Martin Luther King Jr. Commons at NIU.

DeKALB – At 19 pages long, NIU's re-entry plan outlines procedures on everything from move-in day to best practices for faculty, students and staff in regards to the novel coronavirus.

But William Mills, an associate professor in environmental health and safety who also has a PhD in public health said the plan is lacking in technical detail, and what is in the plan is vague.

"Let's be clear – from an occupational health and safety point of view we cannot eliminate the virus," Mills said. "The only thing you can do is provide controls and personal protection through practices, like not having too many people in one place. But you've seen what's gone on in other states where you've had gatherings about the size of what you're going to have here."

Mills also added that a large portion of people spreading the virus are in the student population.

"Given those facts I don't see how we can claim it is safe," Mills said. "There's a risk. The lack of technical guidance here does not give me any comfort that the risk would be acceptable for faculty."

Kelly Wesener-Michael, dean of students for NIU, said the 'Protect the Pack' plan is just the first of many ongoing communications between the administration and the community.

"NIU with every other higher education institute in the country is working out the fine details," Wesener-Michael said. "What we want to do is provide as much guidance and the decisions we've made as we head toward the fall as soon as we can. That's what Protect the Pack is doing. We will continue to provide training and information to our students, faculty and staff about the details. Some of them we have figured out. Some of them we're working on. But we're working to make sure that communication continues."

Faculty woes

Mills was part of a task force set up by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, along with NIU President Lisa Freeman. But after the task force settled on, again, what Mills called 'superficial and not technical aspects,' he and two other members asked for their names to be pulled and released their own report of over 40 pages detailing technical details.

The paper was released by Mills, Gabriel Guzman, professor of microbiology and science department chairperson at Triton College, and Sheila Simons, professor in the department of public health at Eastern Illinois.

Mills said he was never asked by anyone for input on the Protect the Pack plan.

"They claim they consulted faculty, and I was the only faculty member that was on the IBHE guidance and I was never contacted once," Mills said. "My Ph.D. is in public health and I teach environmental health and safety and I was never contacted once. I'm not aware of who they claim were contacted and what their qualifications are, but I can tell you I was not contacted."

Mark Schuller, professor of anthropology and vice president of the United Faculty Alliance, said he felt the union was not included in initial discussions. He said this led to some decisions like the mask policy, which requires professors to "act as police," according to Schuller.

The mask policy, as presented on the NIU website, is that they are mandatory. A student who fails to comply with a request to wear a mask will be considered to have disrupted the educational environment. If a student chooses not to comply with the request, the student will be asked to leave and, ultimately, the instructor has the authority to cancel class. If this happens, instructors should notify their chairs, who should follow the “Classroom Disruption” process articulated in the catalog’s Academic Regulations. Purposeful non-compliance by a student can result in loss of the privilege of attending class or receiving credit in the class. 

He said it should be up to administration to handle it.

"We're working with the administration with stronger, more enforceable language on masking that doesn't turn us into police," Schuller said. "Turning us into cops is not the best approach. If you don't have a clear, enforceable approach, the crux of a safe workplace, a safe university is, are people going to be responsible self-managers?"

Schuller said the consultation with the union was better than most universities but still not enough. The union, representing more than 500 tenured and tenure-track faculty from NIU’s six colleges, was formed in 2017, though its members didn't reach a labor contract agreement with the university until last fall for the first time.

"Sometimes it feels like the university forgets we have a union and we need to be consulted," Schuller said. "In March when COVID first hit, there were a lot of fast-paced conversations. But the administration did not have to do a rushed, top-down process of re-opening. They basically excluded faculty and other unions from the workgroups."

Schuller said he estimates about 75 to 80% of courses will be online this year.

COVID-19 on campus

Wesener-Michael said while students will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test before moving on to campus, any family member with them won't have to. Move-in day is being spread out to August 19-21 for first-year students and 21-23 for returning students. All times are by appointment.

Wesener-Michael also said the school will work with the DeKalb County Health Department if a student living in a residence hall tests positive.

"We'll have protocols to quarantine in place," Wesener-Michael said. "If that's in the residence halls we'll have protocols in place to manage that."

She said that they will work with any positive cases on a person-by-person basis.

"A student who might be online living in Wheaton, Illinois and not stepping foot on our campus, that person might need something different from someone living on campus," Wesener-Michael said. "Or a faculty member who might be teaching in the classroom. We want to be able to customize our response to meet the needs of students, faculty and staff. That could be very different from one individual to another."

Wesener-Michael said there will be no impact on tuition.

"The university stands by the fact that education is very important, obviously critical, for our students to move forward with their careers," Wesener-Michael said. "Learning happens in person. Learning happens also online. And our commitment to quality teaching, regardless of modality, is an ongoing commitment. At this point in time, there is no intention to move away from tuition, or any tuition pricing we currently have."

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