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'A collapse of infrastructure,' Michigan State University unions question COVID-19 policies on campus

MSU sign on campus
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Michael Albani is a graduate student at Michigan State University who teaches in a small classroom packed with students. Not much room for social distancing, he explained. He had some days where a third of his students were out sick.

His partner lives over 170 miles away in the suburbs of Chicago to be near her doctors. Albani’s partner has lived through a liver transplant and cancer — greatly immunocompromised during a pandemic that seems never-ending.

Albani said he doesn’t feel safe driving down to see her because based on “how inadequate the tracking of COVID has been" [at MSU], he cannot feel certain the students in his classroom are safe.

“Because I am in such close contact, I don't feel comfortable traveling to see my partner. Because I don't know what I would do, if I inadvertently was carrying something that then, I gave to her and put her life in jeopardy,” he said.

“MSU as an institution is prioritizing its profits over the safety of everyone that keeps it going.”

Albani, represented by the MSU Graduate Employees Union, is one of many employees who say they feel unsafe as the school grapples with an in-person fall semester during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The graduate student union and union for non-tenure track faculty have especially been vocal about the university’s policies, asking for more transparency with contact tracing and flexibility with classroom formats.

“We want MSU to stand up and do the right thing. In spite of what other universities are doing, I am so tired of hearing, ‘Well, at least we have a vaccine and a mask mandate.’ If that somehow absolved all of us from caring about each other,” Kate Birdsall said.

She is MSU’s nontenure-track faculty union president.

Concerns union members have included the following.

Switching to online

The crux of the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty’s campus protest this Thursday was to ask the administration to recognize instructor requests to switch online.

Birdsall said the university and the union, accompanied by the Graduate Employees Union, agreed to a memorandum of understanding where instructors could discuss temporary shifts online with their immediate supervisors should there be COVID cases.

But, she said she noticed the provost’s office getting more and more involved with the process. Many requests were being denied.

“My bargaining unit is made up of highly educated, well-trained professionals. And we believe that we are able to make good decisions for ourselves, and for our students, and for our families,” she said. “And the university is basically saying, ‘No, you're not going to make those decisions.’ And we have a real problem with that.”

She points out that most instructors do not want a permanent shift online — but not all college classrooms are a large lecture hall with someone at the front, behind plexiglass. Classes can be collaborative and, often, in close quarters.

MSU defines “close contact” as “more than 15 minutes — within six feet of a confirmed COVID-19 case.”

“It is very rare that I get through a teaching day, without being within six, hell, even three feet, of students who may or may not be contagious,” Birdsall said.

Michigan State University spokesperson Dan Olsen said to Michigan Radio, “While unit administrators make reasonable efforts to accommodate request(s) when consistent with operations, the MOU does not require that these shifts be granted.”

Contact tracing

Union members like Albani and leaders also want a more robust contact tracing program.

MSU’s Triage Line collaborates with the Ingham County Health Department for tracing and notifications. But Birdsall said the current system is unclear to them.

Students and employees also call the Triage Line to self-report cases. However, MSU employees described long waits, sometimes hours, before reaching someone.

“We recognize and apologize for the lengthy hold times on our COVID-19 triage line early in the semester. Thanks, in part, to additional resources being added to the triage line, callers are now experiencing little to no wait when they call for assistance,” Olsen said. He told the Lansing State Journal  that there were staffing shortages.

While not part of the contact tracing process, MSU and the University of Michigan both halted the notification system for “informal” contact with someone who has COVID. This led to confusion for people in the two unions. Birdsall said a notification system could help instructors get a better sense of their classroom’s situation.

“It's almost as in requesting transparency, the university has gone the other way,” Birdsall said.

Vaccination and COVID data

Michigan State University, which requires students to get vaccinated, boasts nearly a 90% fully vaccinated rate among students, staff, and faculty. (It does not break down by groups.)

Carol Prahinski is with the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at the university. She had been tasked by her union to assess the school's data.

She said MSU’s self-reported vaccination form did not require lot numbers and she was worried that this meant there was no way for the university to verify the numbers with the state. Other MSU union members confirm the form did not ask users to upload a picture of their vaccination card but did ask for information like first dose dates.

MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen confirmed the lot number was optional.

“This information, along with internal systems, can be used to verify vaccinations among our campus community,” he said. “The university also reserves the right to ask for further documentation of vaccination status if needed. MSU is focusing on following up with complaints made to our misconduct hotline alleging falsified vaccination status, each of which are thoroughly investigated.”

Michigan State University has yet to appear on the state health department’s COVID outbreak tracker. This is in contrast to the state’s second-largest school, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which is seeing more 500 ongoing cases related to an outbreak.

RELATED: What parents should know about school COVID-19 outbreak reporting

Outbreaks are different from cases since they need to be epidemiologically linked, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said during a Tuesday press briefing. She said that last year, and maybe even this year, many school outbreak reports were actually just cumulative cases.

A system switch that impacted grad students

Ava Hill, the Graduate Employees Union spokesperson, said the HR system for graduate students switched before the fall semester. The rollout resulted in many graduate students not getting their health insurance or pay. And, in some cases, both.

Hill said some didn’t find out they didn’t have health insurance until a trip to the doctor or when picking up prescriptions — then got denied or stuck with a big bill.

“We had folks coming to us telling us they were rationing pills or trying to decide whether or not to pay rent or buy food that week. It put a lot of graduate students in a really horrible situation that was made even worse by the fact that they had to go teach in person when that was particularly dangerous to their health.”

MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen explained in an email that MSU had implemented two major systems over the last year, including the Student Information System and financial aid disbursement system.

“These new systems have some shortcomings and their interfacing with other systems isn’t always working properly. This required remediation and the university worked around the clock to address it. The health coverage issue has been completely resolved and many of the issues related to fellowship disbursements have been addressed as well.

That said, all units and staff have been directed to make addressing these issues a top priority and immediately notify the Graduate School when an issue impacting a student is identified so it can help promptly and appropriately address it. The university also is making available short-term university loans to aid those who are still experiencing fellowship disbursement challenges and need immediate financial assistance. The interest on these loans will be waived for these students.”

During the Thursday protest, Hill said several grad students are still left in the dark, and she wants to see reimbursement for those students.

Beyond the demands

Kate Birdsall, a writing and American culture professor, took over as UNTF’s president in March 2020 — right before COVID's spread became apparent in the United States.

She remembered the outgoing president chatting with her in the hallway and saying passingly, “I think you should just handle this COVID business, right?”

Since then, she has cultivated a good relationship with the employee relations office. But “never in a million years, did I expect to be leading a crusade for public health at this university,” she said.

Initially, she said she thought MSU handled the pandemic well. Then something changed, she said, and it then felt like the school was pretending it’s 2019.

“We've just always kind of expected that the university is going to take care of us,” she said. “But when we started to take those things for granted...what I saw is just a collapse in infrastructure.”

The instructors describe anxiety, extra work to adjust for their classes, hyper-awareness of someone coughing behind their masks — all of them trying to provide the best experience for their students.

But they are seeing those same fears reflected in some of their students. Prahinski said there is a palatable change in the new class of college students as she bikes across the Michigan State University campus.

“I don't see spontaneous joy anymore,” she said. “I don't see people just breaking out in joy and laughter and dancing or whatever crazy things that kids used to do. This is a serious group of kids.”

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