YOUNGSTOWN — The Youngstown State University faculty union said the university administration is “endangering all our lives” with its COVID-19 policies.
In a news release Monday, the YSU-OEA said the university “is a ‘super-spreader event’ waiting to happen.”
Among its complaints are YSU’s filtration systems, which the union says have not been updated as promised; an “ineffective” contact tracing system; and “limited learning options for students in isolation or quarantine.”
“We honored our commitment to our students and to YSU by returning to pre-pandemic face-to-face course numbers this fall, believing that you would follow the guidance of the CDC and local and county health departments to keep us all safe,” Susan Clutter, YSU-OEA president, said in the release. “You have failed to institute even basic protections, and we will no longer be silent about your lack of action. You are putting all our lives in danger.”
In the release, the union mentions YSU’s Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety director “who publicly shared false information related to COVID-19 and advocated against wearing masks to limit the spread of the virus.” In August, Mahoning Matters reported on Facebook posts from Julie Gentile being flagged for misinformation.
In a late-Monday statement by the YSU administration, however, officials defended "extensive" campus protocols, noting all procedures are included on its COVID-19 Information website.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is an ever-changing moving target beyond anyone’s control; every day, we all learn new approaches to keeping ourselves and those around us safe,” the university said in the statement.
Union seeks immediate changes
YSU-OEA is calling on the YSU administration to make immediate changes, including:
- Daily communications between the administration and the YSU community that includes transparency on decisions made that directly affect the lives of the YSU community, including faculty, staff and students;
- Provide an accurate weekly report of positive COVID cases at YSU;
- Institute a vaccine mandate by Dec. 1 for all YSU community members, including faculty, staff and students;
- Allow faculty and staff who are high-risk or who share a residence with high-risk individuals to work and teach remotely;
- Distribute immediately the purchased N95 masks to those who requested them but who have yet to receive them due to a third-party medical company’s incorrect processing of request forms;
- Hire a director of Environmental Health and Safety who is an authority on public health and epidemiology.
“The union has been patient with the administration’s handling of the pandemic and supported decisions based in medicine and science made in fall 2020 and spring 2021,” Clutter said in the release. “However, at some point leading up to this semester and continuing now into the third week, the administration is seemingly choosing to prioritize a ‘return to normalcy’ over instituting all the necessary safety measures needed to limit the spread of COVID on campus, exacerbated by the delta variant and even as daily infection rates in Ohio reached 8,000 cases.”
The YSU administration needs “to stop ‘exploring’ their options and take action now,” Clutter said.
Shelley Blundell, a YSU journalism professor and union faculty member, said faculty have submitted multiple public records requests to learn more about the inner workings of the university's pandemic policy-setting, but none have been totally fulfilled. One of them was filed a month ago.
"Whether there's miscommunication about what we're asking for or whether there's been a lack of transparency on the administrative structure — on who's making these decisions, who they're reporting to and what they're reporting — the university has said, 'We have it under control,'" Blundell said.
"We ask them, 'How?' ... their response is, 'Don't worry, we've got it under control.' That's not sufficient."
Requests for N95 masks
More confusing for union faculty is the status of some 10,000 N95-rated masks supposed to be made available to faculty upon request, which were ordered by Gentile, the university's occupational health and safety director, Blundell said.
The university set a process for union faculty members to request the masks more than two weeks ago, right before the start of fall semester, but members learned this past weekend those requests were kicked back by the masks' third-party provider due to clerical issues, she said.
"At no point did the university say anything [about the delay] until someone tracked it down," Blundell said.
The university is in possession of the masks, but still needs to follow a process for properly distributing them to faculty, which includes training faculty on how to fit them.
'Ineffective' contact tracing
It's 'still not clear' how the university's contact tracing system works this semester, Blundell said.
Coronavirus testing occurring on campus is for surveillance only, rather than the diagnostic testing that can identify if someone is COVID-positive. Instead, YSU community members are encouraged to get at-home testing kits and report their status through an app.
The QR codes students used to check-in at their classrooms — the reports from which could track student movements through the university — aren't in place anymore, and the faculty wants to know why, Blundell said.
When a student tests positive, notification emails to faculty members come from student email addresses, she said. Professors are then asked to submit seating layouts for their courses. "We don't know what happens after that," Blundell said.
Remote teaching for the at-risk
Though union faculty members who are immunocompromised were told they could request to teach remotely, rather than in-person, those requests have been denied, Blundell said.
Human resources workers told union faculty members the university is only obligated to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and they "don't consider a change of modality to be a reason for accommodation," she said.
In its statement, the university said, “Youngstown State University has been and will continue to implement evidence-based protocols to monitor and suppress coronavirus in accordance with public health guidelines.”
The university said its protocols are “extensive,” including “mandated masks inside all campus buildings; campus vaccine clinics; readily available testing; extensive contact tracing; air and surface sampling; weekly updated online COVID-19 dashboard listing all reported cases among students and employees [since August 2020]; hand-washing and sanitation stations throughout campus; and more.”
Regarding the filtration systems, the university “is in the process of working to upgrade air-handling system components in buildings and make adjustments to allow additional fresh air intake,” the release states.
Regarding communications, the university “has sent 73 university emails related to the pandemic to employees and students in the past 18 months, on average one per week, in addition to information in the weekly campus e-newsletter and across all YSU social media channels,” the release states.
— Reporter Justin Dennis contributed to this story.