A previous version of this article included a misspelling of Bret Schulte's name. It has since been updated to include the correct spelling. The Traveler strives for accuracy and clarity in all matters.
Members of the UA Faculty Senate voted Sept. 8 to approve the UA-Fayetteville Education Association — Local 965’s resolution calling for all UA employees to be permitted to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Faculty Senate resolution was sponsored by Bret Schulte, associate professor of journalism and Local 965 president, and Michael Pierce, assistant professor of history and Local 965 vice president.
The sponsors wrote the original union resolution after union members, students and other faculty members expressed concern over classroom safety amid rising COVID-19 cases, Pierce said.
“When this decision was made, there was no delta variant,” Pierce said. “Since they’ve made that decision, the circumstances have changed dramatically.”
When UA officials announced in March that fall semester classes would be in person, active COVID-19 cases in Arkansas were nearly 17,000 fewer than Tuesday’s 19,794, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. There were 137 active cases reported on campus Tuesday, according to the Pat Walker Health Center. With the exception of the preceding week, the last time cases were that high was Sept. 17, 2020.
Rob Wells, an associate professor of journalism, put in a request to UA Human Resources on Aug. 20 to move his in-person classes remote this fall because of his wife's medical condition. She is immunocompromised, diabetic and underwent a lung transplant in 2016 for a serious lung disease. Officials at the University of Maryland Medical Center Department of Pulmonary and Transplant Medicine, where she received her transplant, documented her condition and supported Wells’ request.
The acting provost denied his request on Aug. 24, but Wells found a solution when Larry Foley, chair of the School of Journalism and Strategic Media, and J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences leaders advocated on his behalf. Now, Wells is teaching two classes online.
“The provost did not approve [the request] and did not explain why,” Wells said. “So I am very grateful for [Foley and the others’] support and advocacy on my behalf.”
Pierce said the 2020-21 school year demonstrated that employees can get the job done at home. His main priority, beside protecting university employees, is to make sure students feel safe while in their learning environment, he said.
“I think you’ll be a better quality student if you’re not worried that your presence in the classroom is threatening your health,” Pierce said.
Director of University Communications John Thomas said the decision to return to in-person instruction was made in the best interest of students after consideration of rising vaccination rates.
“It is vital for classes designed to be offered in-person to in fact be delivered in that manner in order to facilitate the most pedagogically beneficial interactions between student and instructor and among students,” Thomas said.
The university’s COVID-19 Response Team is continuing to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in the area, with guidance from the Communicable Diseases Outbreak Committee, Thomas said.
Despite a campus mask mandate and enhanced cleaning procedures, Pierce said he thinks the university’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts have not been adequate to protect the campus community.
“The university is requiring faculty and staff to be physically present, but not doing everything in its power to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus,” Pierce said.
Pierce said administrators must enact the policy advocated in the resolution to protect staff members’ and students’ health as well as that of their loved ones. The professor, who has worked at the university for 21 years, said he has never seen faculty and staff this fearful. Three-hour labs and seminars are particularly frightening, he said.
“Students and faculty have to be working side by side for that long,” Pierce said. “It’s something that has people really afraid.”