Q: What would it take to teach safely?
Covid is airborne. A variety of evidence converges on small aerosols that linger in the air for hours as the primary transmission mechanism for COVID-19. A good heuristic is to imagine everyone as if they are smoking, only the smoke is potentially virus-laden breath. See this recent review: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abd9149
The following safety measures are known to be most effective in limiting the spread of COVID-19 — UO Admin thinks none of them are worth implementing to protect your health.
- Social Distancing & Avoiding Indoor Crowds – UO is boasting that classes are being scheduled at their full, “pre-COVID capacities” for the Fall term. However, we are not post-COVID. In spite of this reality, UO is assigning GEs to teach 25 students in classrooms with a pre-COVID capacity of 26, work in indoor lecture halls with 150, 250, even 350 students, and research in pre-COVID capacity labs and offices. This makes social distancing and avoiding indoor crowds a virtual impossibility for many workers and students alike.
- Remote Work for At-Risk Families – UO is offering only very limited remote work options. GEs who are at high risk for COVID or who have families who are at-risk for COVID should be able to easily request and receive accommodations. For personal and community safety, all those whose work does not require them to be in person and who want to work remotely should be able to. Not allowing for easy, accessible remote options actively excludes and harms people with medical needs.
- Ventilation & Filtration – Increasing the fresh air circulated in a room, as well as filtering viral particles with air filters are the most effective means of decreasing mass-transmission of COVID within a room. Without adequate ventilation and filtration, viral aerosols can remain at transmissible levels for more than a day. UO’s infection control plan says they will not be making any improvements to their ventilation systems beyond mixing in outside air, a process that is limited by temperature constraints during the winter. Admin could purchase portable HEPA air filters, which have been shown to be effective in removing up to 90% of aerosols from a classroom, but they won’t.
- KN95/N95 Filter Masks – Not all masks are created equal, and tightly-fitting n95 masks can filter more than 99% of exhaled and inhaled aerosols. Universal masking is a great start in reducing exhaled aerosols, but especially for crowded, indoor spaces like classrooms, mutual risk is dramatically reduced if everyone is wearing an N95. At the moment, UO intends to distribute masks in classrooms, but they will almost certainly be lower-quality, looser-fitting masks, and they will also only be distributing thin cotton masks to students outside the classroom.
- Mandatory Asymptomatic Testing & Contact Tracing – Testing asymptomatic people is the best, if not only way to prevent chains of asymptomatic transmission that are especially prevalent among younger people. Modeling from the original strain of the virus, which was much less transmissible than Delta, suggests that testing everyone at least every 3 days would be necessary to prevent uncontrolled outbreaks. UO Admin instead intends to require testing only for unvaccinated students once a week, even in the residence halls.
- Paid Time Off, Work Reductions for All Suspected Exposures – To keep each other safe, instructors, staff, and students all need to be able to take time off work and class when they have any suspected exposure to COVID. This means paid time off for employees, and work reductions (that don’t shift the burden to GEs to prepare alternative materials) for students. Currently UO is giving two weeks of PTO total, for the entire year — enough for a single quarantine period.
Vaccines are important, and everyone that can should get one, but they are no longer sufficient to prevent the mass spread of COVID — and despite what the bosses are willing to throw down to us, we need aggressive non-vaccine interventions to be safe at work.
Q: What can I do if I feel my workplace is unsafe?
- Refuse To Work
If your workplace is unsafe, you have the right to refuse to work in it.
We have a Health and Safety clause in our Collective Bargaining Agreement, including guidelines for refusing to work in unsafe spaces. GEs who feel their work environment is unsafe have the contractual right to follow these steps to ensure their safety.
Read the full Health and Safety clause here. We’re stronger together, so bring your coworkers, department stewards, and/or lead stewards into any safety conversation with your supervisor or university management.
We also encourage you to look at the Health and Safety clause (and our Collective Bargaining Agreement in general) collaboratively with your fellow department members. That way you can ensure you’re all familiar with your rights as unionized workers and have conversations about what steps you can all take together to make your work safer.
For an interpretation specifically focused on how Collective Bargaining Agreements’ Health and Safety protections apply to COVID-19 concerns, please read this post by the Communications Workers of America.
2. Organize to Demand What You Need
Join the #covid-updates channel in the GTFF slack, and signal you’re willing to walk unless you’re safe in a forthcoming survey.