Students, faculty and workers demand U of L leaders 'immediately' enact new COVID-19 rules

This article was originally published in the Louisville Courier Journal on January 26th, 2022. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Demanding stricter safety precautions against COVID-19 and flexibility for remote work, over three dozen students, campus workers and faculty entered a University of Louisville Board of Trustees meeting Thursday to deliver a petition to school leaders.

The roughly 50-member group delivered printed copies of the signed petition to board chair Mary Nixon, with one student allowed to speak near the beginning of the regularly-scheduled board meeting about their collective concerns over COVID-19 safety.

The group then left Grawemeyer Hall as the Board of Trustees meeting continued Thursday afternoon, with security on hand but no arrests or dust-ups occurring, attendees said.

Members held signs with messages such as, "Jobs Remote = Lives Saved" and "Is my degree worth my life? I don't want to be put on a ventilator again."

Related: U of L's largest college backs away from discipline of staff who don't teach in person

Nearly 1,800 students, workers, faculty, alumni and parents had signed the "Keep All Cardinals Safe" petition, which calls on interim President Lori Gonzalez to "immediately" take several safety-related steps, including:

  • Allow instructors to move courses online and allow employees, when possible, to work remotely

  • Offer hazard pay to frontline staff

  • Provide N95/KN95 masks to all campus communiy members throughout the semester and make at-home test kits available "on demand"

  • Mandate weekly, not only monthly, testing for anyone on campus who is unvaccinated, and enforce "meaningful consequences" for failure to mask or comply with regular testing

The demands are "reasonable," said Ph.D. student Nathan Schimpf, and in line with some of the policies other peer institutions, such as the University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky and Northern Kentucky University, have implemented in response to the omicron wave.

Schimpf, the lone group representative allowed to speak during Thursday's board meeting, and other members of the United Campus Workers of Kentucky chapter at U of L wrote the petition, which was also delivered last week to Gonzalez.

But Schimipf said Gonzalez has yet to respond to them or acknowledge their concerns.

Instead, Gonzalez has sent out emails in the past two weeks related to administrative appointments and a new U of L advertising campaign, dubbed "Here & Beyond."

"We’ve felt kind of disrespected and kind of hurt by the fact that the administration doesn’t seem to take our safety seriously," Schimpf told The Courier Journal. "...It was hurtful to see something kind of tone-deaf emerge from that."

U of L spokesman John Karman told The Courier Journal in a statement the university “has made and will continue to make COVID-related decisions in the best interest of its students, faculty and staff following the guidance of local and national health experts.”

”Our efforts to provide in-person learning and student services in the fall semester were well-received, and despite the Omicron surge, we look forward to an equally successful spring semester,” Karman wrote in an email.

U of L's policies surrounding COVID-19 amid the surging omicron variant have already been the source of passionate debate on campus.

As the spring semester began earlier this month, some faculty and staff in the College of Arts & Sciences — U of L's largest college — derided Gonzalez's policy that would subject them to discipline if they taught classes online instead of in person.

David Owen, acting dean of the college, eventually backed off from the policy, telling department chairs he recognized they may "require a degree of flexibility to manage individual and short-term circumstances as they see fit."

But as for university-wide policies, members of the United Campus Workers chapter told The Courier Journal they remain unsatisfied with U of L's policies and response to their demands, saying further "escalation" is possible in the coming weeks.

U of L does not have a universal COVID-19 vaccine requirement except for those in the schools of Medicine, Nursing, Dentistry, Music and Theater Arts, with the university otherwise telling its community that vaccination is "strongly encouraged." The health services office on campus administers vaccines and COVID-19 testing for free.

U of L's online dashboard notes 91.8% of faculty, staff and students were vaccinated as of Jan. 14, with 438 positive tests since Jan. 3 and a positivity rate of 18.5%.

But the "Keep All Cardinals Safe" petition says the university must be more "transparent with the campus community about COVID-related data, including infection rate, vaccination rate, and contact tracing."

The petition, in part, notes the dashboard lists a vaccination rate that includes partially vaccinated people and does not say what percentage of the campus has received booster shots.