CUNY Faculty, Staff Call For Delayed Reopening Over Virus Fears

MANHATTAN — Days before a planned return to campus, students, faculty and staff at CUNY on Friday called for administrators to delay the start of in-person activities, saying schools including Hunter College lack adequate facilities to guard against the coronavirus.

Hunter, part of the City University of New York, includes both a college and a K-12 school, the only such school in the CUNY system. Fall semester classes at CUNY are set to resume on Wednesday, with about 6 percent being held in-person, while Hunter's lower school students will return Sept. 10, along with the rest of the city's public schools.

But at a Friday news conference, student and faculty leaders said they have been kept in the dark about the details of CUNY's reopening plan, and said many buildings lack adequate ventilation systems as a result of decades of funding cuts. (Indoor ventilation has been shown to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 through airborne transmission.)

Speakers said inadequate planning could jeopardize the safety of students and staff at CUNY, which has seen 47 faculty and staff die from COVID-19, according to Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY's Professional Staff Congress, which represents the system's faculty and staff.

"Many CUNY buildings had ventilation problems even before the pandemic," Bowen said. "We have been provided with no proof yet that those buildings have been made safe."

Of particular concern is the Hunter College Campus Schools building on 94th Street, a fortresslike structure that houses Hunter's elementary and high schools and is known as "the brick prison,"said Tina Moore, a Hunter teacher and union chair.

"It has a terrible design, where almost no classrooms have windows," Moore said.

Repairs are underway on the building's ventilation system, but staff were told that the new system could not be tested until September, with students and teachers inside the building, according to Moore. She added that requests by the union and parents to meet with CUNY administrators about reopening have gone unanswered.

"In the absence of real engagement and agreed upon independent verification that the ventilation system is adequate, we believe teaching remotely is currently the only safe and responsible option, Moore said.

Other critics of CUNY's reopening plan include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who chairs the Assembly's higher education committee, and City Councilmember Mark Levine, all of whom joined Friday's news conference and questioned whether the system's facilities were up to the task.

"By and large, you're dealing with older facilities that have not been well-maintained," Glick said.

CUNY has said that no more than 25 percent of its employees will be on campus at any one time, but that would still amount to more than 11,000 people, Friday's speakers said.

The staff congress is still waiting on a response to a list of 10 demands it sent administrators in July, including presenting a full plan for on-site reopening and creating accommodations for employees at risk of COVID-19 complications. If the union does not hear back by Aug. 26, "all options will be on the table," including a strike, the group said.

In a statement, CUNY spokesperson Frank Sobrino said that 95 percent of the system's courses would be fully online, and that no one will be allowed on a CUNY campus without undergoing a health screening. CUNY will also enforce occupancy limits in all campus spaces, require social distancing and face masks, and regularly deep-clean classrooms.

"We believe this is the safest and most effective way to maintain the academic momentum of our students while safeguarding the health and safety of the entire university community," Sobrino said.

This article originally appeared on the Harlem Patch