Unionized faculty and staff at Illinois’ universities and colleges want their institutions to start almost entirely online this fall.
Employees and professors represented by 40 unions around the state, including seven of the 12 public universities, released a joint statement Thursday laying out concerns with returning to campus amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.
The call comes days after the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which represents some of the faculty and staff, made a similar demand that all elementary and high schools begin online.
John Miller, president of University Professionals of Illinois, said online learning may not be ideal for every student, but in-person classes poses risks.
“Let's follow what the science tells us to do. Let's do what's right to maintain the safety and let's reopen it in a way that makes sense based on (that guidance),” Miller said in an online news conference Thursday morning.
The coalition also published best practices for safely teaching in-person that they say are more detailed and technical than the ones released by the Illinois Board of Higher Education last month, which they called “too vague.”
Three professors, who are IFT members, developed a version of the best practices as part of the IBHE working group this summer. However, they said their recommendations were ignored by the state agency and left out of the final report.
Sheila Simons, a public health professor at Eastern Illinois University, worked on the recommendations and said they provide more detail information, such as an emphasis on air quality and flow in classrooms and other buildings.
“We noticed that they just simply removed that content. And the belief was that our recommendations were too restrictive,” Simons said.
An expanded version of their best practices is on the IFT website . It has demands such as allowing teachers to have the final say if their classes are online or in-person and barring students from class if they refuse to wear a mask.
The IBHE plan urges schools to follow Illinois Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
“The objective for IBHE was to provide general guidance that follows the CDC and IDPH, while allowing each institution to tap into their own expertise to address the unique needs of their student body, faculty and staff and physical footprint,” said Ginger Ostro, executive director of IBHE, in an emailed statement.
Billy Hung - a professor of microbiology at Eastern Illinois University – said he wants to return to campus and see his students.
“But all the indicators about public health, about how people behave and the amount of resources that each campus devote to maintaining safety, all of these signs point to a very high likelihood that we're going to have outbreaks if we open up face-to-face,” Hung said.
A librarian, academic advisor and building maintenance worker also voiced their concerns during the new conference. Some said they worried not only about their own health, but also exposing at-risk family members.
The union coalition says almost all classes should be remote, except ones where distance learning is not possible, such as music, labs and dance courses.
The union members urged their institutions to make swift decision for an online-only return in August.
“Making the decision now provides a chance for everybody to start working this way and to address those students who will lack the resources necessary to be able to continue learning,” Miller said.