Binghamton University has rescinded a controversial initiative that would require staff to sign up for biweekly COVID-19 support shifts.
On Sept. 13, BU President Harvey Stenger announced in a Dateline Addition that nearly all University staff were mandated to register for shifts to help with COVID-19-related tasks around campus, including “meals, transportation [and] package delivery” to students in isolation and quarantine. The decision was met with criticism from staff, faculty and unions, and was rescinded in a Sept. 21 Dateline Addition.
The decision to instate the mandatory shifts was caused by a lack of a sufficient volunteer pool, according to the original Dateline announcement. Staff were required to sign up for two shifts per month for the remainder of the fall semester, with shifts given on a first-come, first-served basis.
In the Sept. 21 Dateline Addition, Stenger cited falling COVID-19 case rates across campus as the cause of the decision’s cancellation.
“At the time, we saw an urgent need to develop additional capacity to meet the increase in cases we were seeing,” the Dateline read. “However, more recently, the rate of positive cases is decreasing.”
Though COVID-19 rates have decreased significantly on campus, the rescindment also occurred amid an apparent dispute between the University administration and the United University Professions (UUP), a union representing faculty and staff. In the Sept. 13 Dateline Addition announcing the mandatory shift policy, Stenger said BU “worked with both the UUP and [the Civil Service Employees Association] CSEA” in making the decision.
In an email received by an anonymous UUP member shortly after the Sept. 13 Dateline, the UUP denied that the University had consulted with the UUP.
“UUP vehemently denies this statement and admonishes campus administration and President Stenger for attempting to use campus bargaining units as a shield for their poorly planned and executed policies,” the email reads. “[We] would like to make it clear that UUP did not negotiate, or agree to, or review in advance or even have the opportunity to provide substantive input on the recent mandate from administration.”
A day prior to the cancellation of the policy, a separate email was sent out by the UUP to its members stating that University managerial staff had apologized for a “miscommunication” between staff that had led to the misuse of the UUP’s name in the Dateline, according to the UUP member.
UUP declined to comment on the validity of these emails.
Though the decision would only have affected staff, some faculty members expressed relief at its cancellation, including Andrea Kastner, a lecturer of art and design.
“I remember getting the first message about the shift to mandatory [COVID-19] support shifts, and mistakenly assuming that I was included,” Kastner wrote in an email. “Quickly doing the mental calculation of how to sandwich that into my already stretched-to-the-limit schedule was pretty overwhelming, and I know my friends who are staff were feeling very squeezed by these choices. That is especially true for fellow parents of children too young to be vaccinated.”
Ali Almajnooni, a lecturer of Arabic studies and comparative literature, shared Kastner’s relief at the cancellation. While Almajnooni acknowledged the importance of combating COVID-19 on campus, he said the mandated shifts could have been implemented with more communication between parties.
“What I can say at the moment is that any response to the rise in COVID-19 cases should be orchestrated in coordination with all the stakeholders,” Almajnooni wrote in an email. “More importantly, it should never be at the expense of the University staff’s health and overall well-being. We’ve been living, more or less effectively, with the pandemic for a while now. Sudden spikes in positive cases were not always totally unexpected.”
Staff who had already signed up for COVID-19 support shifts were encouraged to remain on the list of volunteers, in order to help meet needs that may arise throughout the semester. According to Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, the present volunteer list will likely be sufficient.
“Based on the current number of staff who have signed up, we are confident that we will be able to meet any needs which may arise throughout the semester,” Yarosh wrote in an email.
Like Almajnooni, Kastner expressed support for any volunteers and staff during uncertain times.
“Mostly I want to say how unbelievably deeply grateful I feel toward the people who have taken these volunteer shifts,” Kastner wrote. “The pandemic has been crushingly hard on students, on faculty and on anyone who’s been dealing with sick loved ones and home-school and quarantines. I truly don’t know what the University can do, and I don’t envy them the task of trying to manage this organizational conundrum.”