psc rally

WAITING TO EXHALE: Members of the Professional Staff Congress are seeking information from the City University of New York about which spaces on campus have inadequate ventilation as they prepare for in-person classes in the fall. 'We will not send members into unsafe offices, labs or classrooms,' said union President James Davis.

The City University of New York plans to have students and faculty return to campuses in the fall—but the Professional Staff Congress called for transparency regarding issues with ventilation.

During a June 23 City Council hearing, CUNY officials testified that about half the courses will be taught in-person, while the rest will be offered online. Although classes will start Aug. 25, nearly 7,000 faculty and staff were expected to return to campuses Aug. 2, according to the union.

Require Vaccinations

In preparation for the return, the state has required vaccinations for CUNY students learning in-person—pending Federal approval of the vaccine—and CUNY plans to use three-feet social-distancing rules. The administration expects  the capacity at campuses to be about 50 percent, although it may be lower at some institutions.

The public-university system has also received Federal coronavirus funding to address ventilation issues across its campuses. Many of CUNY’s 300 buildings are old and lack proper ventilation, which can be essential to stopping the spread of COVID. 

Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Hector Batista said that CUNY has partnered with a third-party vendor, which has been inspecting ventilation systems and installing filters.

“The Chancellor has made it clear to me that this is of the highest priority,” he said.

But some members of the PSC said that they have had trouble to finding out from CUNY whether particular spaces have inadequate air quality.

Won't Gamble on Health

“Transparency from our administration will not only build confidence among faculty and staff in the safety of the workplace, it will make safety possible,” PSC President James Davis said. “We will not send our members into unsafe offices, labs or classrooms.”

Several members pointed out that many CUNY buildings were crumbling due to years of deferred maintenance.

Diane P. Banks, chair of the PSC health and safety committee at Bronx Community College, said that her campus has had repeated issues with air quality, including an incident in January 2019 in which almost 40 pipes burst at Colston Hall.

Roxanne Shrazi, a PSC delegate and Librarian at the Graduate Center, said that library staff have been preparing for months for students to return, but when they asked for details about the ventilation, they were told by CUNY that no information was available.

“How are we supposed to prepare our operations in spaces before we know that those spaces can be used safely?” she asked. “There is little faith left in general statements about a building being safe; we have learned to ask for proof.”

Want Reports Shared 

CUNY officials stated that they will create reports of findings from the inspections; the PSC has called on the administration to share these reports with its members.

There were other concerns about whether CUNY was doing enough to prepare for the return of students. Andrea Vásquez, the union’s first vice-president, contended that many students and staff will likely have increased mental-health needs.

So far, CUNY has said that it will allocate $1.9 million of Federal funding to address mental health. But Ms. Vásquez noted that this amount would limit hiring to 15 full-time counselors.

As part of its proposed New Deal for CUNY legislation, the PSC has estimated that the university would need to hire an additional 125 counselors to meet recommended staffing ratios for mental-health employees. While the International Accreditation of Counseling Services suggests one counselor for every 1,000 students on campus, CUNY’s ratio was 1:2,700. 

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