Profs Seek Protection From COVID – GWU’s Demand It

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Profs Seek Protection From COVID – GWU’s Demand It; Argue Faculty Have Rights To Avoid The Deadly Risks in Classrooms

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Professors Seek Protection From COVID

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 21, 2020)  - As more university administrators announce plans to return to classroom teaching this fall, many professors - especially those at abnormally high risk of death or disability because of age or a wide variety of medical conditions - are beginning to rebel, claiming that no combination of testing, mask wearing, or attempts to require students to maintain social distancing can possibly protect them from the enormous dangers of the coronavirus.

This is reflected in recent articles with titles such as "Do Faculty Have the Right to Refuse to Teach In The Fall Due To COVID-19?", "Good College Teaching Does Not Require Sharing Air With Students," "Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus: The Right Not to Work," or, from Inside Higher Ed, simply "The 'Right Not to Work,'" notes public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

Banzhaf notes that the 6-foot social-distancing standard was meant to apply only to brief encounters outdoors, not to lengthy confinement is confined spaces like classrooms.

He cites an actual example where one restaurant patron infected others some 14 feet away, an MIT study showing that germs in a sneeze can travel over 200 feet, and another establishing that one airline passengers can infect others rows apart despite the airplane's superior ventilation and filtration system.

The Safety Of The Students, The Staff And The Faculty

Indeed, the issue has become so important that the American Association of University Professors [AAUP] issued a "Statement on COVID-19 and the Faculty Role in Decision-Making" recognizing the right of faculty to be involved in decisions regarding the type of instruction (on line and/or in person), and that "the safety of the students, the staff, and the faculty should be everyone's primary concern."

On Wednesday, the faculty of the George Washington University, tired of being excluded from the planning for the fall, and with the conflicting statements from administrators which put the lives of some members at risk, took the next major step.

Its Faculty Senate, which shares a governance role with administrators, unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the University provide "appropriate protection for those who the University has reported are at 'a higher risk of getting very sick,'" especially regarding any decision about returning to any form of classroom instruction this coming year, says GWU's Banzhaf, who attended the virtual meeting.

The Senate resolution responded to growing concerns that forcing professors to return to face-to-face instruction in a classroom, as GWU recently announced - even with promises of testing, mandatory mask wearing, and attempts at requiring students to maintain social distancing - would inevitably expose professors to a very high risk of infection by a deadly virus which is highly contagious, says Banzhaf, who helped draft the resolution.

Concerns For Older Professors

Of special concern are professors who are older and/or have a variety of conditions including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, breathing problems, weakened immune systems, and other problems which make them especially vulnerable and at much higher risk of death from the virus.

The University itself had previously warned on its COVID website that "early information indicates some individuals are at a higher risk of getting very sick from this virus. This includes: Older adults [AND] people who have serious chronic medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes and lung disease."

The law professor, who had previously threatened GWU over a similar issue in successfully forcing it to go smokefree, argued that persons who are particularly at risk from the COVID are entitled, by law, to special and additional protections, citing: The Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA], the D.C. Human Rights Act [DCHRA], and the Occupational Safety and Health [OSH] act.

He also said that professors afraid for their own lives, and for the lives of their families, might also seek to take advantage - perhaps with the help of a sympathetic doctor - of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and/or its DC counterpart, the U.S. Family First Coronavirus Response Act, the DC COVID-19 Response Supplemental Emergency Amendment Act, and perhaps other remedies.

He also pointed out that President Trump, who is as eager as anyone to see universities open as quickly as possible, nevertheless recognizes the need to protect professors who are older or in poor health.

Trump's Remarks On Vaccine Development

In remarks Friday on vaccine development, Trump said "I don't think that you should have 70-year-old teachers back yet. They should wait until everything is gone.  I don't think you should have a professor that's 65 and has diabetes or has a bad heart back necessarily, or somebody that's older than that."

The President went even further during a virtual town hall in urging special protection for the small minority of teachers whose lives might be endangered if forced to return to classroom teaching this fall:

"So when you go back - and you have one problem that is a bigger problem, and that's teachers over 60 or 65 years old - the teachers. . . .  We have to get our schools back. But I do worry about teachers at a certain age. . . .  But if you have a teacher that's 65 or 70 years old and has diabetes, that one, I think, they're going to have to sit it out for a little while . . .  We have to go back.  And whatever it is - I would say, with the exception of teachers at a certain age, maybe they should wait until this thing passes."

Teachers who are especially high risk of death from exposure to the coronavirus in a classroom could be protected by allowing them to continue teaching on-line, or by permitting them to take sabbaticals if they are otherwise eligible but did not request it before the pandemic hit, he said.  As a very last alternative, they should be furloughed rather than fired, he suggests.

In the latter situation, the Faculty also demanded "that in the event that cuts must be made, the university continue its contributions to health insurance in full in order that all employees can remain protected with their health insurance coverage."

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About the Author

JOHN F. BANZHAF
John F. Banzhaf is an American public interest lawyer, legal activist and law professor at George Washington University Law School. He is the founder of an antismoking advocacy group, Action on Smoking and Health.

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