As Skyline and Cañada counselors were asked to return to in-person work this fall, they called out unsafe conditions and inconsistent policies — and gained important improvements
by Katharine Harer & Rika Fabian, AFT 1493 Contract Action Team Chairs
Counseling faculty from Skyline and Cañada Colleges came to our AFT Contract Action Team (CAT) at the beginning of the fall semester with serious concerns about the way their divisions were handling their return to in-person work. They had checked with their colleagues at each of our three campuses and found that they were being presented with radically different requirements for return. Of the three campuses, CSM had the most reasonable policy: counselors had the option of volunteering to work in-person, and those who didn’t make that choice could work from home. Period. No percentages, no forced return, no need to make special arrangements with the dean. At Skyline and Cañada, however, it was a whole different story.
Counselors’ in-person work involves close contact with students
Most of us know this, but just as a reminder – counselors work one-to-one with students in very tight spaces to ensure confidentiality and trust. The very nature of counselors’ work with students could put them in harm’s way. Many students have opted for virtual counseling appointments for these same reasons: their exposure in close spaces. Counselors’ work is essential not only in guiding our students to enroll in the right classes, but also in helping students with emotional issues—and issues of survival—that have become even graver in the Covid era.
Union helped publicize counselors’ issues and gain community support
Our Contract Action Team (CAT) strategized with counselors about how best to change the unfair policies being forced on faculty at Skyline and Cañada without their input. We decided that a petition drive focused on their issues to be presented to the Board of Trustees and Chancellor Claire would help inform our campus communities about their unfair treatment and unite faculty in a show of support. The drive was very successful — in less than a week over 300 instructional and non-instructional faculty members signed the petition.
Counselors show that faculty need to speak out for a safe return to campuses
Although the issues at Skyline and Cañada are still not completely resolved, counselors organizing together, speaking out and fighting back demonstrates that collective action can make a difference in our working conditions. Safety will be everyone’s concern when we return to our campuses in Spring. The counselors’ actions showed that unified voices of faculty are essential to urge the District to do their utmost to make our return safe.
Skyline counselors unite & win a temporary victory
At Skyline, counselors realized a few weeks into the semester that our process for electing to return for in-person services varied, depending on whether we were in general counseling or special programs. Some counselors seemed to have a simple opt-out option (to work remotely,) while others were held to a 25% quota of required in-person services for student services. This quota meant 25% of counselors would have to opt in (work in-person) and have no option to opt out unless they went through a formal process, and some counselors were asked by their supervisor to come in since they were on the bottom of the seniority list. Only 3 counselors out of 50+ counselors at Skyline actually volunteered to offer in-person services. However, in actuality a total of 16 counselors were slated to return in-person. Of those 16 counselors, we found that 13 of them weren’t given the option to opt out without an HR process, or they were asked to come in to help provide in-person services to meet the 25% requirement.
Meanwhile, counselors heard that Chancellor Claire was under the impression that all counselors at Skyline were volunteers, and if a counselor said they did not want to come in, they could simply just opt out. Counselors began to realize that the process was unclear and inconsistent, and we began to check in with each other to discuss whether the process was equitable and how comfortable each of us felt being on campus. Additionally, we recognized a difference across the district when we found out that at CSM the process was completely voluntary and at Cañada their whole division was asked to come back in some hybrid format.
At that point, most counselors slated for in-person services had been on campus for at least one week. After nearly two weeks of some counselors being back on campus, those counselors began to realize that there were little to no safety policies and protocols in place for students, counselors, and staff. Furthermore, counselors at Skyline were moved to a “swing space” which meant all of our stuff was moved to the Pacific Heights building (photo at left), and we were given one day to unpack our belongings and get acquainted with the new space (which happens to be one of the oldest buildings on campus and, at the time, only had one functional single-use bathroom.) As a result of recognizing the differences across the district and the unsafe working conditions on campus, we began organizing with AFT’s Contract Action Team to put out a petition to support a safe and fair return to campus for counselors. This petition was presented with 300+ signatures at the Board of Trustees Meeting on September 9, 2021.
Skyline counselors gain temporary “pause”
A week and a half after the BOT Meeting, our counseling division met to discuss the concerns and questions we had about our return this semester to in-person services, and we found that as a division, counselors had an array (150+) questions and concerns to bring forth. As a result, two counselors in our division brought this information to our dean and proposed there be a pause in services for counselors until safety protocols and procedures were identified for student, staff, and counselor safety. As a result of this request, our campus put a pause on in-person counseling appointments for fall 2021 to figure out how to address and remedy the issues that counselors have brought forth.
In my opinion, I think the reason we were able to get a pause of in-person services so quickly came as a result of a mass collective effort to advocate for fair and safe working conditions for our counselors. There was amazing camaraderie and organizing happening on the ground amongst counselors; there was support from the union, from the CAT Team and union President; there was support from faculty across the district (the petition included many instructional faculty’s signatures); and, as a division, we were able to present our concerns to our administration and they were willing to listen to us.
At the moment, in-person counseling services at Skyline remain paused temporarily. However, we have no clear timeline of when, or if, we’ll return for in-person services this fall. Our ultimate goal is to always serve our students, but we also need to serve our students in safe conditions, which is what we are advocating for overall. At this point, our division has three working groups: a Hyflex working group, a Health & Safety & Process working group, and a Data work group. We’ve set up these groups to ensure that our questions and concerns are addressed and we can return under conditions that are both fair and safe for students, staff, and faculty.
At this point, we are unsure what exact impact our work groups will have on the decisions about when, or whether, we will go back in-person for the fall semester. The current goal of our work groups is to work towards finding the answers to the questions our counseling colleagues have brought forth and to present proposals to administration that are equitable and provide for the safety and well-being of students, staff, and faculty when our return to in-person counseling resumes.
Cañada Counselors Push Back!
The past five months have been confusing and stressful for counselors in our district regarding the return to campus in Fall 2021. Throughout Spring 2021, counselors were told Fall 2021 would be remote for all faculty. Administrators were constantly saying our safety and health were a priority. However, two weeks before the end of Spring semester, the BOT began to discuss bringing counselors back based on an outdated student survey done in Feb 2021, before anyone knew about the Delta variant. In addition, the BOT was just starting to talk about Fall 2021 plans when the Spring 2021 semester was about to end and faculty were about to leave for summer break. In other words, faculty were not able to provide feedback about the return to campus at the district level. Although a few counselors did speak up at the BOT, not everyone was given a voice due to time constraints.
Over the summer, Cañada College counselors did not receive any updates regarding the return to on- campus work for fall 2021. Therefore, it came as a surprise when counselors were told during Flex Day that they were expected to return to campus by October 4th. Counselors were given two options: 1. Return to campus or 2. Work a Hybrid schedule (remote 1 or two days at most). In fact, the email sent to all Cañada counselors following that meeting clearly stated that all programs with a counseling component needed “to provide some in person counseling beginning in October.” Each counselor was then asked to choose a “plan” for fall 2021 (hybrid or in-person) by September 3rd. In order to stay remote for Fall 2021, faculty were told they either needed to have medical reasons and to work with HR or to work with the Dean regarding any non-medical reasons. Counselors were not invited to work with administration to come up with the plan, and we were given only a few minutes during the division meeting to discuss this plan or ask questions.
Counselors at Cañada subsequently learned that CSM’s policy gave counselors the option to volunteer to work on campus. Cañada College counselors were never given that option. At Skyline, counselors were told they needed to have 25% of counselors working on campus. In other words, each campus had a different plan for counselors to return. At Cañada, during a division meeting and at a student services meeting, we brought up our concerns and we also raised concerns about bathrooms for faculty, cleaning supplies for counselors, and the issue of windows that don’t open. To date, the Administration at Cañada has still not fully addressed these questions.
AFT supported counselors by creating a district-wide petition asking for consistent requirements for all three campuses and supporting counselors to not be required to return this semester until safety plans have been put in place. AFT’s Contract Action Team, working closely with counselors, was able to get more than 300 signatures from instructional and non-instructional faculty in support of the petition. Counselors presented it to the Board of Trustees on September 9, 2021.
Some improvements but not enough
To make matters even more concerning, counselors learned that while the district is expecting us to return to campus this fall, this is before student proof of vaccination is required by the district. Students will not need to show proof of vaccination until the Spring 2022 semester. Therefore, it makes no sense to have counselors return to campus in Fall 2021 before proof of vaccination, or regular weekly testing, is set up for in-person appointments.
At a division meeting on September 28th, our Dean apologized for the deadlines but never mentioned the petition. He did say counselors can speak with him again if they want to change the plan, but not every faculty member feels comfortable speaking to their dean individually to disclose their personal situation in these challenging times. When he was asked directly, the dean would not agree that it was optional/voluntary to return to campus this semester. Once again, there was very little time for counselors to discuss and ask questions during this meeting to provide feedback.
Bottom line: Faculty input is essential for safe return to in-person work
Recently, we have learned through talking to one another that Cañada counselors are now able to have the option to work remotely, but only after speaking with the Dean. This change in policy was never announced to counselors as a whole. As of now, we do have some counselors who are planning to work on campus this semester. But it feels as if the administration is not considering our safety and health as a priority. They are just in a rush to get counselors back on campus when, in fact, most of our students are asking for virtual appointments rather than in-person. There does not seem to be any compelling reason why counselors need to hold virtual appointments in their campus offices rather than in the safety of their homes at this time. To sum up, there has been no faculty input in creating the return to campus plan for counselors at Cañada College, and there continues to be a lack of consistency across the district for the return to in-person work for counselors.
This report was written by a Cañada College counselor in consultation with counselor colleagues