The fall semester has started for colleges and universities across New York State. For me, the start of the semester has always been a time of excitement, as I prepared to meet new students in my classes and begin the process of sharing knowledge and wisdom with them.
In my role as UUP president, I don’t get to teach, and I regret that reality. Representing UUP’s 37,000 members at SUNY campuses across the state is more than a full-time job. It has its own rewards and excitement. But it certainly is different than the dynamic of a classroom.
For my colleagues in higher ed, this fall is very different. In my conversations with them, I hear very little excitement. What I hear is anxiety. Fear. Trepidation. Not just about COVID-19, which is frightening enough, but also about the complexity of teaching and serving our students while keeping our communities safe and well. And then there are the demands of caring for our children amid the chaos of changing plans for K-12 schools.
Through all of this, there are constants. First, there’s the obvious need to protect ourselves from COVID-19. UUP called for baseline testing of all members of the campus communities in the months before classes resumed for the fall. Unfortunately, our calls were not heeded. This is unfortunate. With case numbers jumping a several campuses — most notably at SUNY Oneonta, where Chancellor Malatras closed the campus and ordered a shift to total online teaching — SUNY is chasing the wave.
All of us should—and must—learn the painful lesson that controlling this virus is very difficult and cannot be accomplished in haphazard fashion. I am impressed by Chancellor Malatras’ aggressive steps to force campuses to regularly test sample groups of students. These steps are necessary. The testing must be done weekly with as broad a sample as possible. It’s called surveillance testing. Right now, I would call it safety-surveillance testing. That’s because it’s a proven way to keep our communities safe.
Another way is to require mask-wearing by everyone on campus. From the reports I’ve been getting, this is being done with strong direction from campus leadership. We all must be committed mask-wearers. It seems simple enough, but it works.
It is immoral that leaders of our nation — including Donald Trump — continue to undermine efforts to mandate mask wearing. It’s irresponsible, dangerous and inhumane. The virus is a killer.
Despite his constant posturing to the contrary, Trump himself called the virus a “plague” and a “killer” that “rips you apart” in recently released taped interviews with journalist Bob Woodward. He knows the truth, that wearing a mask saves lives. When he downplays the virus and scoffs at wearing a mask, don’t believe him. We owe it to each other to put on a mask.
The second constant has been our continuous call for an extension of the telecommuting agreement we worked out—along with our other statewide union colleagues—
with the Governor’s office in March. It allows those who could work from home to do so, reducing risks to their health and the health of their loved ones. It also reduces the population density on campuses, another crucial way to limit coronavirus spread.
Most importantly, it serves to alleviate the crushing childcare burdens falling on so many UUP members and, indeed, on so many Americans. Since our nation fails to recognize childcare as central to our society’s survival — let alone our economy’s success — we face a crucial shortage in this service. COVID has exposed this dire situation, as it has exposed so many other challenges our nation refuses to deal with.
We call on the Governor to extend the telecommuting agreement to the end of the calendar year — at least! We also ask the Governor to reinforce with state agencies, including SUNY, that the telecommuting agreement must be liberally interpreted, so that we can stem the spread of COVID while also taking care of our children.
This crisis is bringing out the best and worst in people. Let’s hope we New Yorkers will pull together as never before to protect and sustain each other. We in UUP are determined to be a part of this effort: We are healers, caregivers, teachers, and researchers. We are professionals, committed to our state and its people. With the proper steps taken by our state’s leaders, and the leaders of SUNY, we will get through this together, along with the students, the patients, and institutions we serve.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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