'We're just asking for flexibility': Students, faculty criticize UofL's approach to omicron

This article was originally published on Spectrum News1 on Monday, January 10 2022 at 2:36pm, and updated January 11 2022 at 2:36pm. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Hundreds of students, staff, and faculty members at the University of Louisville, which started spring semester classes Monday, are calling on the school to alter plans for in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases continue to set records in Kentucky.

In a petition with more than 1,000 signatures, members of the UofL community, including alumni and parents, are asking the university to ​​take six steps to “ensure the health and safety of the campus community for all students and workers.”

The petition, which began circulating Friday evening, was written by members of the UofL Chapter of United Campus Workers of Kentucky, an organization representing campus workers at all levels. The petition includes six demands, starting with allowing instructors to move courses online and allowing workers able to work remotely to do so.

"Remote instruction is absolutely our top priority," said Nathan Schimpf, a graduate student in chemical engineering who helped write the petition. "Everyday that we're able to get more people online for courses, is tens of thousands of contacts we're preventing." 

Schimpf said the record level of COVID-19 cases — more than 16,000 cases were reported in Louisville last week — and unanswered questions about the omicron variant makes it "irresponsible" for UofL to insist on in-person classes at the moment.

"There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of risk that the university shouldn't be putting on students and on workers," Schimpf said.

UofL spokesperson John Karman defended the school's position in a statement. "The university’s commitment to face-to-face instruction was made in the best interest of our students," he said. "In-room instruction has been deemed safe, particularly for vaccinated individuals, and students in general perform much better when courses are offered face-to-face."

"Because the science shows that classroom learning is safe and more effective, we feel it is vital to provide the best educational experience possible for our students," he added.

A request for flexibility

Andrea Olinger, an associate professor of English, said the university doesn’t appear to be acknowledging the new threat posed by omicron.

“We were told whatever worked last semester is going to work this semester. But last semester was before the omicron spike. It was strange to see that disconnect.”

Olinger said she and other faculty are "just asking for some flexibility" for those who want to move classes online, not a requirement that all instructors do so. That flexibility is necessary, she said, given the varied personal and classroom situations instructors are in. 

“Some classrooms are really large and don't have many students in them,” she said. “Other classrooms are entirely full and there's no social distancing. I would like to see some acknowledgment that people can be trusted to do the jobs the best way they know how.”

In a comment provided on the petition, one staff member wrote that the university should provide more flexibility for staff who meet one-on-one with students. "Virtual appointments have proved effective over the last nearly two years," they wrote.

Better masks and hazard pay

Other demands on the petition are to provide hazard pay to workers who cannot do their work remotely, such as responsible for maintain university facilities. "​​They should be compensated for that work and that risk that they have to take,” Schimpf said. 

The petition also calls for UofL to provide high-quality masks to “everyone in the campus community throughout the semester” and to make at-home tests available on demand. Regarding masks, UofL on Jan. 10 began making KN95 masks available for pickup at locations throughout campus. According to an email sent to the campus community Sunday evening, all students, faculty, and staff are entitled to two of the KN95 masks, which are more effective at preventing transmission of the virus than cloth or surgical masks. 

Signers of the petition also want changes to the way UofL treat unvaccinated members of the campus community. Currently, students, faculty, staff who are unvaccinated and who are on campus must undergo monthly testing. The petition calls for those test to be conducted weekly. It also wants "meaningful consequences" for those who fail to comply with that testing requirement and those who refuse to wear masks.