Kristina Vahkam / ctnewsjunkie
Davidson Hall (Kristina Vahkam / ctnewsjunkie)

The legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee asked the Connecticut State Colleges and University System to reevaluate the safety measures in its campus reopening plans, according to a letter obtained by CTNewsJunkie.

The letter sent Aug. 20 was addressed to CSCU President Mark Ojakian, and came after the committee held a listening session where CSCU faculty and staff expressed concerns about the reopening of campuses for the upcoming fall semester.

“We respectfully request that you consider implementing these suggestions to keep students, faculty and staff safe after reopening our public college campuses,” the committee wrote.

According to the letter, faculty and staff suggested measures like taking the temperatures of anyone entering campus buildings; increased testing for faculty, staff and all students, including at the system’s community colleges; and at the University of Connecticut, pooling testing to reduce costs.

The suggestions also call for increased flexibility for faculty to work and teach virtually without having to disclose private medical information, as well as for increased flexibility in selecting teaching modality, platform and technology. A request for more IT support is included, too.

Ojakian told CTNewsJunkie that CSCU’s reopening plan is in line with guidelines put forth by Gov. Ned Lamont and the Department of Public Health.

“Temperature taking, testing commuter students — those indicators are not what have been recommended and are not what we are moving forward [with] as the semester begins,” Ojakian said.

“I do appreciate the anxiety that everybody has in returning to campus,” he continued. “But I believe that the protocols we are following are allowing us to reopen safely [and] keeping everybody on campus safe.”

Regarding the requests for more flexibility, Ojakian said that the modality selection process was put in place by the CSCU Steering Committees assembled in the spring.  According to CSCU’s reopening plan, the committees were composed of “campus leadership … such as provosts and deans, facilities and IT directors, and student services leaders as well as system office personnel.”

Ojakian said that it was ultimately each campus administration’s decision whether faculty would teach hybrid, remotely or in-person. Ojakian added that requiring medical documentation from faculty who opt out of in-person teaching due to medical conditions is done per state employee guidelines.

“I think in many, if not most cases, the wishes of the faculty were not only taken into consideration, but the modality reflected what the faculty wanted to do,” Ojakian said. “The most important thing to remember is that we’re here to serve our students. We need to provide the instruction that best benefits all of our students.”

Ojakian added that a safe school year depends on students’ social responsibility to keeping themselves and others safe.

Still, faculty and staff across CSCU’s institutions are asking for more from the administration. At the hearing, members of the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors advocated for the extra safety precautions and flexibility.

“We’re still unclear on the metric by which universities decide that we have to return to all remote teaching,” CSU-AAUP President and Western Connecticut State University Professor Patricia O’Neill said. “The System Office continuously says they’re following the Department of Public Health guidelines, but they’re really doing just the minimum and that’s our concern.”

O’Neill referenced bumps in Central Connecticut State University’s modality selection process as a reason for the union’s push for more flexibility. She said it took weeks to resolve cases where CCSU faculty who requested to not teach in-person were assigned to lecture on campus.

She also referred to Western, which is under a two-week lockdown due to rising COVID-19 cases in Danbury, as an example of why more safety measures and more freedom in faculty choosing a teaching modality are needed.

“It’s the union’s position that it is the individual faculty member’s prerogative to make that choice about modality. The System Office’s position is that it’s the System Office’s choice. We’re still in the process of working that out,” O’Neill said.

At Capital Community College, CEO Dr. Duncan Harris said that though the campus is composed entirely of commuters, the System Office is not requiring the college to test the Capital community, relying on individuals self-identifying symptoms.

However, the campus naturally lends itself to one-way traffic, 85% of classes are online, and everyone entering and leaving the campus must sign in and out, Harris said. He added that faculty’s modality choices were accommodated.

“I did have COVID back at the end of March,” Harris said. “That experience informs my work with this and trying to ensure that we’re as safe as possible with faculty, staff and students.”

The Higher Education Committee asked the CSCU administration to use CARES Act funding through the governor’s office to implement the measures in the letter and to provide rationale for not implementing the measures if they declined to do so.