A Suggestion for Keeping Classes Safe, and More Questions

I have spent a good deal of time in the last few days trying to figure out how to help my department (and anyone else that asks) buy masks that are safe enough for indoor use during this pandemic. It turns out that it is very difficult to ensure that one is buying KN95 or N95 masks that are not fake. This is why Professor Nathan Phillips thinks the university should be purchasing KN95 masks in bulk for all non-remote teachers at the university, with expert assistance. I would add that I think the university actually has a moral obligation to do this, given that they are imposing significant risks on their own employees by making them teach in classrooms, when, in most cases at least, there is a pedagogically preferable method available (remote teaching). In not providing crucial PPE, the university is diverging from the behavior of employers in other professions and industries.

Professor Phillips has also suggested to me that there is another thing that BU could do to help make classroom teaching safer, and I think that teachers and students should be insisting that they do it. Given the now well-known problems with ventilation in many classrooms in the university, the university should be providing to teachers machines that test for the extent of CO2 build up (wherever CO2 builds up, we can conclude that the airflow situation is dangerous). These devices are apparently not difficult to learn to use, and can be bought for about $200 each. Teachers might bring one to class, run a test, and then tell everyone to leave the class if the CO2 level is too high. Teaching for that class might then transition to being online until the airflow in the room can be improved, or an alternative classroom is located. The university is telling everybody not to worry about the ventilation issue, because the HVAC systems are being improved (even though it admits that a great many university buildings do not have HVAC systems). It should put its money where its mouth is, and provide enough of these devices to our university teachers to enable them to check their classrooms from time to time. Since I think it’s a safe bet that the university administration won’t do this, I recommend that individual departments now buy these devices and have their teachers ready to regularly check the CO2 levels in their classrooms when term starts.

Now for a few other items of interest. First, it’s worth noting that according to his statement yesterday, MA Governor Charlie Baker continues to require of all indoor meetings that there be no more than 25 people present. Although the university has said that social meetings on campus should follow this rule, they have not said that they will ensure that no classes in university rooms ever have more than 25 people in them at once. So far as I’m aware, the university will be violating Governor Baker’s orders if they allow more than 25 people to be in a classroom at once, and I know that presently there are classes that are scheduled to have more than 25 people in them at once. Will the university be accepting this ruling, so far as classes are concerned?

Here is another question: will the university be telling us what percentage of students have elected to return to campus, based on the student payments that came in this week? Harvard and MIT provided this information to the public, but BU has not done so as yet.

I have been meaning for a while now to provide an update concerning the BU graduate student housing problem that I previously reported on, concerning the policy that graduate students are to be housed alongside undergraduate students who may have contracted Covid-19. On July 29, the Provost’s Office sent an official communication to BU Real Estate graduate student tenants clarifying the situation. It indicates that no undergraduate students who have tested positive will be housed in graduate student apartment buildings, but it also says that students who have been identified by contact tracing methods as being at risk and have initially tested negative will be housed in quarantine in private rooms in the graduate student buildings, because private rooms are not available elsewhere. The communication further states that graduate students who who wish to be released from the relevant real estate contracts will not be financially penalized. It is left unclear why BU feels it needs to jeopardize the health of graduate students, rather than, say, use hotel accommodation to temporarily house students, as Northeastern, for instance, is planning to do.

Quarantine Requirements and Compliance Issues

I recently reported that BU was planning to merely recommend that students arriving from out of state enter quarantine for fourteen days, rather than require that they do so. Fortunately, this insufficiently cautious plan has had to change because, on July 24, MA Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order putting in place new quarantine regulations. Now, students arriving from overseas or any state that is not classified as one of the “lower-risk states” (presently only eight states are so qualified) must either quarantine for 14 days, or provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test that was taken no longer than 72 hours before arrival in the state. People who do not comply with this order may be fined $500 per day. The Mayor of Boston, Martin J. Walsh, responded to this news by indicating that although he takes it to be good news, he is still very concerned about the many students that will be descending on the greater Boston area (as many as 170,000, according to the Boston Globe), and that he thinks, ideally, students should quarantine for two weeks at home and then quarantine again for two weeks in Boston, before being tested.

On July 27, the BU President sent faculty and staff a statement regarding testing protocols and compliance issues. It contains a fair amount of information. I will comment on just one important piece of news contained in the statement. President Brown makes it clear that there is a requirement on everyone who returns to campus to follow protocols regarding quarantine, face covering rules, testing, etc. The protocols will be provided in a document that all students will be required to commit themselves to. It is said that they will do so through a “digital agreement.” I take it that such an agreement will involve scrolling to the end of a document and pressing a button that says something like “I agree to abide by these conditions” (much as one does when one installs computer software, although one might hope students will actually read this text more carefully than people usually do when they install software). Unsurprisingly, I am highly skeptical that this and the public campaigns also mentioned will ensure sufficient compliance with the necessary protocols (especially compliance outside of the classroom). Here is an additional concern. I express it with caution, lest I be accused of paranoia. Perhaps this digital agreement or contract, which all students will be required to accept if they wish to remain on campus, will also include text that amounts to a waiver, indemnifying the university from subsequent law suits. I do not say this will happen. As far as I am aware, BU has not so far indicated it will be joining other universities that are asking for waivers to be signed by students.

Comments regarding workplace adjustments have been coming in (please keep submitting them). Many people still haven’t heard whether or not they will be provided with a workplace adjustment. One troubling development on this front is that, for multiple faculty members, medical documentation provided by doctors to BU has gone missing (applicants are required to have doctors fax a form directly to HR). This may mean some people who are in CDC-recognized high-risk categories will have their requests to teach online denied.

In other news, BU Real Estate has declined to reverse course with respect to its plans to house regular graduate students alongside students suspected of being infected with Covid-19, despite the efforts of at least one dean and a representative from the Provost’s office. As a result, graduate students have set up a petition for all who are concerned about this development to sign, and are also undertaking a survey of graduate students.

Troubling Developments at BU (to be continued)

I’d like to be reporting right now on what appears to be an extremely troubling development at BU when it comes to the workplace adjustment application process and the exceptions to in-class teaching BU is meant to be providing to many BU teachers at this juncture. I’ve heard enough from four department chairs (indirectly in two cases) to know it is an extremely troubling development, but I have not yet seen the relevant internal communication to department chairs for myself. I feel I must wait to comment on this matter. If anyone has anything they’d like to share with me regarding this troubling development, please email me at allcaution@gmail.com.

There is no shortage of other troubling developments. For a start, a BU graduate student recently wrote to me (thank you!) regarding an extraordinary decision made by BU Real Estate, which is responsible for renting out many rooms to both undergraduate and graduate students. The student writes:

BU Real Estate is turning vacant rooms in some BU graduate housing into quarantine rooms for suspected cases of Covid-19. BU Real Estate wanted us to know that confirmed cases will be in a separate building. The [particular] graduate housing will be only used for quarantining of suspected cases. Although it is only for suspected cases… [there are] a myriad of health concerns and logistical uncertainties. … The plan [is] to turn vacant units into quarantine rooms … They essentially confirmed that, according to the current plan, most graduate students in this graduate housing in the fall will be exposed to a constant flow of suspected Covid-infected students. The most alarming of it all is that they currently have no plans to disclose this information to all of their current residents. I understand that it might be difficult to push them to change their whole plan but I strongly believe that BU Real Estate should at least disclose this information to current residents so that students can make informed decisions about their own living environments. BU Real Estate [has] compared themselves to other property managers around Boston and [has] argued for their lack of legal obligation to inform their residents. They [have] argued that if we lived in a random apartment building in Allston or Brighton, property managers/landlords would not notify us if our next door neighbor was suspected or confirmed of Covid-19. I believe this is a flawed comparison, as BU Real Estate is deliberately bringing suspected Covid cases into the building.”

Seriously, BU?

In other news, BU journalism and political science student Grace Ferguson has been doing some great work tracking recent developments, troubling and otherwise, at BU. After reporting on poor ventilation in BU classrooms and the heightened risks of infection that holding classes in these rooms will lead to (we will have more on this topic soon), Grace has in recent days been providing regular reports on Twitter regarding online town hall meetings BU has been organizing with students, in anticipation of students arriving on campus from the middle of August onwards. From Grace’s reporting of these meetings we have learnt, amongst other things, that the university will not be providing a quantitative threshold in advance (with respect to number of people infected, etc.) indicating when they will be prepared to close the campus. We have also learnt that students coming to Boston from elsewhere, including from virus hotspots, will not be required to enter quarantine; they will merely have it recommended to them that they enter quarantine.

A Tale of Two Letters

Two letters. The first is a letter from the graduate students and faculty of the BU English department, expressing solidarity between graduate students and faculty, in opposition to the Provost’s Memo of June 19 regarding PhD students and the “opaque process that has been poorly explained” surrounding possible exemptions. Amongst other things (including the disproportional impact on black and brown communities when it comes to the impact of COVID-19), the letter highlights the separate standards implied by the memo when it comes to domestic and foreign students. Many foreign students have already been financially penalized because they had to stay in Boston without work for part of the summer (student visa conditions prevent them from working outside of the university). Now, graduate students who teach and who have returned to their home countries face having their stipends cancelled if they can’t re-enter the country due to entry restrictions or difficulties booking flights.

Well done, English! There is still no public clarificatory or ameliorative statement from the university regarding PhD students, despite the huge outcry on Twitter and elsewhere regarding the Provost’s memo, and the internal claims I reported on five days ago to the effect that some of the policies may end up being more relaxed than they appear in the document. If certain policies will be more relaxed, one would think the university would publicly confirm this, if only for PR-related reasons.

The second letter I wish to respond to is today’s letter to the university community from the BU President. Ostensibly an exercise in transparently sharing information about the financial state and plans of the university before asserting that 250 employees will be laid off or furloughed, and that searches for 200 open and unfilled positions will be delayed or cancelled, it is, in fact, an exercise in faux transparency. Aggregate budget numbers and shortfalls are reported (based on facts we already know about freezing salary increases, and removing a year of university contributions to retirement plans, etc.), but the email does not break down “undesignated reserves and budget contingencies” in any detail, let alone consider other ways in which money might be saved. Perhaps there are reasons why recently acquired real estate cannot be sold, or certain building programs cannot be halted, for instance, but we’re not told anything about these reasons, and probably never will be. There is no discussion of the larger mission of the university, or any mention of the widespread concerns of university teachers regarding the way Learn from Anywhere will be forcing many of us to return to teach with masks on in our poorly ventilated classrooms in the Fall, when we would much prefer not to be risking our lives for such a pedagogically unsound approach to educating students.

I have heard rumors of letters to our university leaders from other BU departments, and I hope to post more soon.

A Memo from the Provost Regarding PhD Students

Originally published June 24, 2020

A number of people have asked me what I think of the Provost’s internal memo of June 19,  regarding PhD students, which has been the subject of a social media storm, and is now being commented on in the media more generally, after somebody posted it online (not me, just in case anybody is tempted to think that). I think that this represents something of a public relations disaster for a university administration that appears to be rushing policy documents out without sufficient internal consultation. One might have hoped that the university would have released a public statement by now to address the reasonable concerns that PhD students have expressed concerning the stated policies (here, and in many other places). All this being said, I have heard, through reliable channels, that the PhD graduate student policies that will actually end up being instituted are not going to be as punitive as one might think if one were to take this document at face value. 

I have heard that BU does not, in fact, plan to withdraw funding from international students who have good justifications for not being able to get back in time (e.g. border restrictions or cancelled flights); what will be crucial, apparently, is that a good faith effort is made to return.  There is also a concern that the 14-day quarantine condition mentioned in the document might mean graduate students cannot return at the end of August, but must instead return in mid-August. Again, I’m hearing that this may not be what the university is actually requiring. I’ve been told that international PhD students who need to teach can return at the end of August and then teach online for a couple of weeks if they are in quarantine. Whether these interpretations are what was always intended and the memo could have simply been written more carefully, or there wasn’t enough thought put into considering the implications of what is said  in the document, I don’t know. A strange condition, to my mind, is that they are requiring all new PhD students to be living in Boston from the beginning of fall semester, even though they are not teaching (first year students don’t teach, at least not in departments I’m aware of), and even though they are permitted to take all of their classes online. I haven’t heard that this policy will be weakened. I don’t know why the administration requiring this. My best guess is that the university simply wants to be able to count these students as having arrived on campus. Students who have finished all teaching duties and can do their research elsewhere as they finish off their dissertations are not required to return to Boston.

Russell Powell and I remain committed to the idea that graduate students who teach or assist teachers at BU should not be put in a position where they are being treated differently than the rest of us with respect to teaching on campus. We continue to believe that during this pandemic, all of us should be provided with the right to teach from anywhere, just as students are being provided with the right to learn from anywhere.