College students, faculty and staff reel from coronavirus shutdowns

As the coronavirus affects people around the globe, social distancing and quarantines are turning college campuses upside down. Students are being forced out of dorms, often with no place to go. Faculty are scrambling to convert in-person classes into online experiences. Staff are fighting administrators who want them on campuses that remain open despite the risk.

empty classroom

As students leave campus, what happens to those without transportation home? What about students who rely on on-campus jobs for income? Are students who depend on prepaid campus food plans going hungry?

And the questions keep coming: What happens to hourly campus workers in food services, grounds and maintenance? As faculty pivot online, how do they replicate hands-on experiences that usually take place in labs, music rooms and art studios?

To begin to address these and other concerns, the AFT has joined with the American Association of University Professors to produce guidelines. Their “Principles for Higher Education Response to COVID-19” covers everything from assistance for students left without food and shelter, to continued pay for all campus workers—including adjunct faculty, staff and graduate employees—and protecting intellectual property rights during the abrupt switch to online teaching.

This student-focused guide takes an established assistance model for struggling students and applies it to this moment, with advice on how to address loss of income, loss of housing and food insecurity—issues already common to many students who are now experiencing an amplification of those challenges. The guide comes from the Hope Center, founded by AFT member (and professor of higher education policy and sociology) Sara Goldrick-Rab, who also supports this petition to Congress demanding funds to assist students affected by college closures and restrictions. Also for students: the AFT and the Student Borrower Protection Center’s webinar March 20 on the impact of coronavirus on student loan borrowers, and how borrowers can manage their loan debt.


rutgers brick building
Rutgers University has cleared faculty and students but required some staff to continue to report to campus.

Meanwhile, AFT affiliates are wrestling with college administrators to shut down campuses and protect students, faculty and staff. At Rutgers University, where there are two confirmed cases of the coronavirus, classes have been canceled and will move online for the remainder of the semester on March 23, but access to telecommuting has been denied to some staff. “Many departments are having people come to work,” Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators, told online news source Rutgers University AAUP-AFT leaders are fighting to close the libraries in particular, which administrators have kept open to provide internet access for students’ now-online classes. The union has suggested renting laptops and other solutions to enable those students to continue their education without risking their health. Continuing to staff campus buildings is "reckless endangerment of our members, staff, students and the wider public," says Rutgers AAUP-AFT Vice President Rebecca Givan. "We have the legal and contractual right to demand that Rutgers safeguard people's health.” Others at risk include faculty in charge of grants and labs, postdocs and grad workers employed in labs.

The Professional Staff Congress, the AFT’s affiliate at the City University of New York, is demanding that all offices, libraries and buildings be closed, leaving only campus food pantries open. “PSC members want to keep supporting CUNY students,” says PSC President Barbara Bowen. “In this time of crisis, we can do that through distance technology. Our members should not have to put their lives and the health of the city in danger by being ordered to come to work in a city that is rapidly shutting down.”


person in mask and gloves stand sin front of building
City University of New York campuses have been inconsistent in their closure policies. Photo by Dave Sanders, courtesy of PSC

In the Chicago area, the Cook County College Teachers Union is circulating a petition to the governor to close community colleges, including the 14 where it represents faculty and staff. The situation is fluid as union leaders continue to meet with administrators, but as of press time, many staff were still required to report to campus.

“Staff at community colleges around the state are being told they must put themselves and the community at risk by coming into work,” says CCCTU President Tony Johnston. “This is unacceptable.” Policies regarding staff reporting to work are uneven at best, as college presidents make different calls for different campuses. University Professionals of Illinois, which represents faculty and staff at seven campuses, is calling for immediate closure of all public universities and a shift to remote operation for classes, advising, admissions, counseling, library services, clerical work, administration and all other nonessential work.

“The health and well-being of our students, employees and communities remains our top concern,” says UPI President John Miller. UPI is also pressing to be sure all employees, including part-time workers, are paid throughout this crisis. “We strongly believe that individuals should not have to choose between severe economic hardship or greater exposure to COVID-19 by working on-site,” says Miller. 

Adjunct faculty worry about everything from staying informed of campus policy (many are left off college correspondence lists) to job security and continued healthcare services. Many adjuncts work part-time on multiple campuses but do not clock enough hours to qualify for health insurance at any of them. The pandemic is amplifying their lack of access to healthcare, at the most crucial time.

Rutgers AAUP-AFT members are insisting the university extend healthcare for part-time lecturers, or provide access to campus clinics. “Not only would denying us access to basic healthcare services amount to a grave failure of leadership, it would also be the clearest expression from the Rutgers administration that our lives are truly unimportant to them,” said Bryan Sacks, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, in a quote for the Washington Post

In the larger higher education community, resources are circulating to help academia handle the crisis. The AFT is circulating free, detailed guidelines from the Association of College and University Educators for quickly transitioning courses online. Inside Higher Ed, the online journal, has a new thread for coronavirus-related updates. The Chronicle of Higher Education is maintaining a Facebook group devoted to the coronavirus and higher education. And the Twitter hashtag #CovidCampus is an informal window on personal experience and shared resources on everything from videoconference alternatives and workshops for going digital to supporting vulnerable students.

[Virginia Myers]