United Faculty challenges lack of COVID-19 safety procedures

As COVID-19 vaccines became readily available to all adults in Iowa, there was a renewed sense of hope that life would soon return to normal. However, with the emergence of the Delta variant and a sharp increase in 

COVID-19 cases, people are once again masking up and taking precautions against the virus. 

All three state universities cannot require masks on campus and are prohibited from asking the vaccination status of faculty or students. The lack of COVID-19 precautions on UNI’s campus has prompted a statement from United Faculty, the union representing roughly 600 UNI faculty members. 

The president of United Faculty Becky Wilson Hawbaker recognizes the university has little control over the decisions made by the Board of Regents or the State Legislature but emphasizes the areas in which the university can better protect faculty and students including implementing social distancing in classrooms. 

Hawbaker notes a concern from a professor who has well over 100 students in their class.

“We were just contacted by a member who has 157 students in Sabin 2 which is an auditorium style classroom,” Hawbaker said. “There is no distance, and everyone is pretty crammed in there. It’s hard, because what is she supposed to do? She can ask or encourage students to wear masks but she can’t require it.”

A statement released by United Faculty emphasizes the need for more COVID-19 safety procedures on campus. 

“UNI has faculty with their own serious health risks who have been denied an accommodation to teach online in fall 2021 because it is, according to university officials, inconvenient for students to switch course delivery.” 

The statement continues regarding concerns over how faculty can protect their families who are still vulnerable to COVID-19.

  “We have faculty with vulnerable and unvaccinated children or other family members who are not eligible for ADA accommodations left with few options to protect their family as you require them to teach face to face in a mask-optional, socially-distanced-impossible environment. This is professionally and ethically untenable.”

Student body President Samantha Bennett supports United Faculty’s demands for more COVID-19 precautions. 

  “I definitely sympathize with the faculty,” Bennett said. “I wish that they did have more of an option to say, ‘I’m not comfortable’ and ‘have that changed.’”

Bennett is currently on the campus COVID-19 response team and is continuing conversations with administrators and faculty. 

“They want to prioritize giving students that normal experience, and they want to prioritize being back in person in normal capacity,” Bennett said. “I don’t think that should come at the cost of people’s safety and well being though. And I really do feel for faculty who have to teach in some of these circumstances and don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so.”

Faculty members with health concerns over COVID-19 are put in a difficult situation, as Hawbaker affirms.

“Is the risk of some kind of reprimand worth endangering their own health or the health of their students and families?”

She continues, “We were all looking forward to coming back and having things be normal, as we assumed the vaccine would bring that. But we cannot deny that that is not what is happening.”

Although Bennett would like to see more COVID-19 precautions to help faculty and students feel more comfortable, the university’s hands are tied in many ways.

“I would like to believe that UNI would do everything in their power to make faculty and students feel safe,” Bennett said. “It’s just, we can’t necessarily. It is very frustrating on both sides of that conversation, because we don’t want to overstep and do things we’re not supposed to and lose state grants and funding…then it puts us almost in a worse spot. We’re not as able to provide resources and support to people.”

Ultimately the university is highly encouraging faculty and students to get vaccinated if not already, and free vaccination clinics will be held in the Student Health Center every Thursday from 1pm-3pm and Friday from 9am-11am every week available by appointment or walk in.