A small campus protest was staged Tuesday to oppose the University of Idaho’s plan to hold in-person classes this fall as UI President Scott Green held a virtual town hall on the subject.
More than 800 UI faculty and staff were in attendance on the Zoom call. Among the topics covered were precautions the administration will take to limit the spread of COVID-19. The precautions include mandatory testing for students and thermal monitoring systems placed in busy doorways on campus to check temperatures of those walking past.
The UI would lose $33 million if it started the semester out online, according to Green, who worries that deficit would have drastic impacts on the campus community. The decrease would be the result of lower revenues from housing, dining, parking and other programs.
“When I talk about the numbers and potential losses for the University of Idaho if we do not open, we’re not really talking about the money as most of you would be led to believe,” he said during the town hall. “It’s really about the significant losses of more jobs.”
A protest — which was planned to coincide with the town hall’s start time — attracted a small handful of demonstrators who urged UI administrators to shift instruction online for the fall semester.
While the protest, staged outside the UI’s Administration Building, was shared widely on social media, only about a half-dozen people showed up to demonstrate. Those in attendance included staff, current students and alumni, toting signs bearing messages like, “Don’t gamble with our Vandals,” and “Is my degree worth my death?”
Kyle Schumaker, who works as a janitor for the UI and also attends some classes, said committing to in-person instruction for the fall semester risks the health of all those involved. Schumaker pointed out infection rates and other COVID-19-related trends have only worsened since the school first closed in March. He said the move looks all the more unwise in contrast to nearby Washington State University’s recent decision to deliver undergraduate instruction at a distance in the fall.
“We look a little ridiculous being only 8 miles away thinking that somehow we can do it better,” Schumaker said. “All the precautions they’re taking, I think, are just kind of a farce, I think they’re half-measures.”
The UI plans to adopt a “HyFlex” (think hybrid, flexible) instruction model until fall break in which students are put in a rotation between in-classroom and online learning. In order to promote social distancing, the model limits classrooms to 50 percent capacity, and students will be split into smaller groups, which will meet in-person less frequently than usual.
When students leave for fall break, the university plans to switch to online-only instruction in order to avoid an infection spike when they travel back to campus following the break.
Instructors are required to adhere to the HyFlex model this fall unless they have a serious preexisting medical condition which makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19, or live with someone who does, in which case they will need Human Resources approval to opt for remote, online-only instruction. Their only other option is to take an unpaid family medical leave.
Green said he understands the anxiety surrounding his plan to reopen amid a global pandemic, but he assured faculty and staff that the university has taken adequate safety measures for the time being and will be ready to shift its plans should things get dangerous.
“We feel very confident about opening,” he said. “Our plans exceed those of most universities around the country, and we believe few really have the type of COVID-19 testing and thermal monitoring that we’ve been able to deploy.”
All students will be required to take a COVID-19 test before they begin taking classes and will be asked to isolate for 10 days if they test positive, either in designated campus dorm areas if they live on campus, or at home if they live off campus. Students will also be required to wear a mask in classrooms and places where 6-foot social distancing is not possible.
Plans are currently being made to implement additional testing throughout the semester.
Green said the university has partnered with Gritman Medical Center to offer tests on-campus at the Student Recreation Center free of charge for students, faculty and staff. He says the facility has the capacity to test — via nasal swab — as many as 1,000 people per day and will turn results within a 24-hour time frame.
There is no specific set of guidelines set for students, faculty and staff who do not comply with the mandatory testing and face covering policies. Employees are asked to tell students who are not wearing face coverings to leave campus, and if the students do not comply, then the employees are authorized to call campus security. Further refusal to wear a face covering will result in the student being referred to the Dean of Students office for “possible disciplinary action,” said Jim Craig, a UI General Counsel attorney who was one of town hall’s panelists.
“I don’t think we’ll have to go there,“ Craig said about the policy’s enforcement. “I think the education and respectful enforcement of the policy will work.”
Despite his confidence in the university’s current reopening plan, Green said the UI community should be ready to switch gears at any moment.
“We should, however, be prepared for the possibility that we may need to transition fluidly — like we did this past spring — if the public health situation changes,” he said.