A letter from University of Idaho staff and faculty urging university leaders to allow employees who work closely with students to choose to work remotely without fear of reprisal or the need to fill out a waiver neared 300 signatures as of Thursday.

Delivered to UI President Scott Green on Tuesday, the letter said cases of COVID-19 in Idaho are increasing exponentially with current case numbers far surpassing those seen in March when the school canceled in-person instruction for the first time. Rather than insisting employees return to the classroom, the letter said the UI should take this opportunity to demonstrate that online learning can be rigorous, engaging, and conducive to a healthy community.

“With the 2020 fall semester fast approaching, an increasing number of UI employees find it both ethically troubling and pedagogically problematic to hold in-person, on-campus classes in a way that ensures safe and innovative conditions for teaching and learning,” the letter reads. “We believe that each faculty and staff member, regardless of rank, should be able to make decisions about how to perform their work safely without penalty or pressure to take needless risks and without being required to fill out a disability form.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the letter received 278 signatures, including 123 tenured professors eight of whom are distinguished professors.

Assistant Director of the UI Lionel Hampton School of Music Leonard Garrison said he was among the first to sign. Garrison noted an increasing number of colleges across the country are choosing to go online for the fall semester, including nearby Washington State University.

“I’m just concerned that no one is protecting us, from the U.S. president to the governor on down,” Garrison said. “There was an article in The New York Times this morning about how colleges and universities are breeding grounds for the spread of the virus despite all precautions and fall semester hasn’t even started yet.”

Professor of Finance and Chairman for the UI Faculty Senate Terry Grieb said the letter did not originate in the senate, but the sheer number of signatories shows it represents the opinions of a significant portion of staff and faculty. While concerns about health and safety are near-universal, he said the UI must figure out how to balance them against its responsibility to provide access to affordable, high-quality education.

“There are no easy answers to any of those questions, so I think it’s a fluid situation (and) I think it’s very productive and important that faculty are voicing their thoughts on the issue,” Grieb said. “I think that that is part of the conversation, so all of those perspectives need to be considered, as we determined what the fall semester looks like.”

Scott Slovic, distinguished professor of environmental humanities with the UI’s English Department, said he understands that UI administrators are “between a rock and a hard place,” trying to balance economic and political concerns against public health priorities. While he does not envy their position, Slovic said he believes UI leaders are reasonable people who will pay attention when a large cohort of their employees express concern about health and safety.

Slovic said the letter shows many university employees do not feel like the worst days of the pandemic have passed. He said the latest information appears to predict a “tremendous surge” of cases — possibly exacerbated by the start of the school year.

“I think in reality, it’s unlikely to be only a few cases — if we were truly being handcuffed and marched into the classroom, to be together and breathe the same air together with our students, masks or no masks, then there would be a certainty of mass contagion,” Slovic said “It’s not worth taking extreme public health risks, especially when many of us feel we can deliver our courses very effectively, in creative and engaging ways, without having to take those risks.”

UI Director of Communications Jodi Walker said employees who wish to work remotely must fill out paperwork with human resources and applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis. She said requests based on medical needs but not all requests can be filled. She said deans and department heads will have to balance requests from medically at-risk faculty against those who wish to move their work online out of more generalized concern for health and safety.

An email from Green sent to UI faculty and staff the same day he received the letter reaffirmed the university’s commitment to in-person instruction.

“We continue to implement a uniquely robust set of safety measures — including required testing of all students — to provide effective learning and work environments and a campus that is as safe as possible for students, faculty and staff,” Green said in his Tuesday email, noting more than 1,000 universities across the country, including Idaho’s other three public colleges, have opted to return to in-person instruction. “While going on-line could make our job easier in some ways, it would be the worst possible outcome for many employees and students.”

Green said in the memo that all concerned employees are invited to join an online town hall, 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Tuesday. Attendees must register through Zoom beforehand and the town hall will be recorded and posted to the UI’s COVID-19 site after the event.

Scott Jackson can be reached by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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