In light of the concerning news about the current high COVID transmission rates in the communities John Jay serves, we reiterated to the administration the importance of clear communication about social distancing, a mask mandate, and the option of working remotely for all those whose specific vulnerabilities or domestic circumstances pose significant health risks. Given the conflicting messages about the safety protocols for the reopening of CUNY campuses to in-person instruction, the John Jay PSC chapter sent the following letter, this past Monday, to the John Jay college leadership.
President Mason and Provost Li,
We have arrived at a very serious point. John Jay had a cautious and responsible reopening plan, set by the Reopening committee, that the CUNY administration required us to develop. We are now being told that key components of this plan are no longer in effect. When CUNY shifted course abruptly to require that 60% of classes have an on-campus component, the Reopening committee took the responsible approach, following CDC guidance, of establishing a mask mandate. Faculty who agreed to teach on campus did so because of the promise that there would be a mask mandate. With the spread of the highly infectious Delta COVID variant, the situation has drastically deteriorated, yet it seems the administration’s strategy has not adjusted accordingly.
We are relieved that CUNY management have accepted the PSC’s demand to ensure all teaching and work spaces will accommodate six feet of physical distancing until our members are positively assured that the people with whom they share space are vaccinated. However, there are other crucial health and safety concerns that have not been addressed in a satisfactory way by management. In particular, we are concerned that the Chancellor’s most recent email allows for exceptions to the newly implemented mask mandate for vaccinated people “in a classroom, dorm room, office, or other enclosed space, or… at a workspace/desk and is socially distanced from any other occupied workspace/desk.” This goes against the CDC’s recommendation that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors at all times, as well as the WHO’s recommendation that the vaccinated wear masks in places where there is any community spread.
It is imperative that we follow the CDC guidelines, especially given the high rates of COVID-19 infection in surrounding counties. As of today, all five counties that comprise New York City, as well as the tri-state area the John Jay serves, are areas of substantial or high transmission. In addition, in John Jay’s immediate vicinity the rate of community transmission is high, the CDC’s most severe risk category.
With infection rates and hospitalizations going up, the CUNY administration should be implementing a very cautious approach to re-opening. These are life-and-death matters and we must put the health and safety of our students and all CUNY employees front and center in decision-making. At the very least, John Jay should institute a mask mandate for all students, faculty, and staff regardless of vaccination status, and provide faculty members with the option of beginning their in-person class online, at least until all on-campus students have had their vaccination status verified. We also ask that individual faculty be authorized to delay the transition to in-person even later if faculty members, or members of their household, become especially vulnerable to COVID-19 (for example, the new diagnosis of a serious illness or the need to begin caring for a vulnerable family member). In these rare cases, it makes more sense to change the course modality, than to replace the faculty member. We also reiterate the importance of smaller class sizes, for both health and safety and pedagogical reasons, as well as our concerns that no changes to course offerings be made that would negatively impact faculty, staff, and student safety at this stage.