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Letter to the Editor: Faculty, Staff, Students Should Have the Right to Teach, Learn, and Work Remotely

Dear President, Provost, Board of Trustees and Miami University community, 

We are grateful to colleagues serving on committees charged with developing safe options for returning to campus in fall semester. They face extraordinary challenges. According to many experts, even with personal protective equipment and social distancing policies in place, returning to campus will mean unnecessary spread of the COVID-19 virus. College campuses, with high concentrations of people circulating in closed spaces, are ideal petri dishes for the virus. Miami AAUP strongly urges that university campuses not reopen until we are certain that a robust, reliable test and trace setup can be implemented (or until a vaccine is available).

Despite the dangers, the President and Provost are intent on opening campus for classes and residents this fall. If the university does reopen, we must enact a simple measure that is certain to reduce risk and protect public health: empowering faculty members, staff, and students to decide, at our discretion, whether and when we are able to work and study on campus.

Members of our university community have the right to protect ourselves and our households. Protective measures such as PPE, handwashing, and social distancing are important, but unfortunately, we cannot ensure that everyone will follow them. Even if accurate and robust testing can be implemented, state and CDC workplace guidelines will be challenging to follow and well-nigh impossible to enforce. 

Faculty members, staff, and students may have excellent reasons for teleworking that are not categorized by ADA accommodations as “direct threats.” For instance, older Miamians’ vulnerability (or the vulnerability of their loved ones at home) may not be deemed a “serious underlying health condition,” and COVID-related child care issues may force people to work 3 from home. We should be able to choose to work remotely without medical documentation or other intrusive requirements. And because health status, outbreaks, and policies may change quickly in a pandemic, each of us needs to be empowered to make and adjust our decision as the situation changes. This telework policy accords with CDC recommendations, which suggest revising absence and leave policies so that they are flexible and non-punitive. 

Miamians spending time on campus should also expect and insist that, at a minimum: 

  • CDC and Ohio state health guidelines are carefully followed, and campus is, per OSHA section 5, “free of recognized hazards” that are causing or likely to cause injury or death  

  • Mask-wearing and social distancing are enforced in public areas and classrooms as a matter of university policy 

  • Sufficient sanitation staff are hired (and paid a living wage) 

  • Adequate testing facilities and quarantine procedures are at the ready 

  • Clear enforcement mechanisms and procedures for safety are present. No one should be expected to learn or work in environments that are not in compliance 

Arguments for returning to campus in the fall semester have centered largely around financial concerns. Revenue loss would harm Miami financially, and disappointed students matter to all of us. But even this fall, enrollments remain high, and regardless, our top priority as a public university must be to protect the health and safety of everyone in our campus community, especially our most vulnerable. The increase in racial and economic inequities during the current pandemic means that Black faculty and staff and low-paid campus workers may be significantly more exposed. What monetary value do we put on life, equity, and good health? 

In an earlier message to the university community, the Provost “empower[ed] deans, chairs, and faculty members to make decisions...for how they will meet the needs of their classes for fall.” Let’s follow through on that promise, empowering each of us to teach, learn, and work in the way that works best for us. Staff, faculty, and students have proven our ability to perform high-quality work remotely. Returning to campus in fall semester presents extraordinary risks, and faculty, staff, and students must have the right to choose to work and study off-campus. 

We encourage the Miami community to share concerns with the Safe Return to Campus Committee. Thanks to all members who participated in creating this statement. 

Steering Committee and Membership Miami AAUP Advocacy Chapter

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