October 2021 Advocate: Health and safety concerns

Safe return to work

Health and safety concerns remain central as some faculty return to in-person work in Fall and most others prepare to return to campus in January

Recently our three campus health and safety committees held their latest round of monthly meetings. Many employees turned out to voice concerns aloud or in the chat, as did AFT’s representatives to each committee. Attendance was down from the summer numbers of 100+ employees per meeting, due probably to faculty workload and competing commitments. While administrators addressed some of the many questions posed by employees about current health and safety protocols and procedures, “this piece is in progress” was a common response. For answers, employees were also referred to the District’s newly expanded Return Information for Employees and Students websites.

At the most recent Cañada and Skyline College committee meetings, counseling faculty in particular voiced concerns about being asked to return to campus without the necessary policies in place to keep them safe. Lack of space, proximity to students for prolonged times, and lack of knowledge about students’ vaccination status were just some of their concerns, as Skyline and Cañada counselors have been pressured to return to work in the Fall, while CSM counselors have not. At the Cañada meeting, concerns were read aloud and shared in a document that was later merged with Senate concerns, and then administrators presented answers to the questions ahead of the campus town hall meeting of October 15. AFT believes strongly that the District must apply consistent policies to ensure both equity and safety for all students and employees.

During the committee meetings, it’s become evident that the District’s main priority is to stringently follow existing local and state laws, while faculty have urged the District to be more proactive, stressing that our district has the means go beyond the minimal requirements by hiring additional staff to monitor our public spaces, making N95 masks more readily available, and more. “Is it illegal for us to do more?,” asked one AFT rep.

Faculty questioned why the District has only just begun to implement our Board’s July 2021 COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement mandating that employees and students accessing campus be vaccinated, with no enforcement taking place as of this writing. That “self-attestation” and signage have been considered methods of enforcement has left many worried and others angry. Notably, an important minority of faculty members have also voiced their belief that, for a variety of reasons, the District should not mandate vaccinations at all (but generally support weekly testing for any unvaccinated staff or students). 

The Elephant(s) in the Room

To date, committee administrators have left many questions unanswered: How will the vaccination policy be enforced for faculty? Will there be an appeals process for those turned down for an exemption or accommodation? What will be the repercussions for unvaccinated faculty who are not granted an exemption or accommodation — and are thus unable to continue teaching online? Will Deans working with faculty move through the non-ADA accommodation process equitably and consistently, or will inconsistency rule the day (echoing class cancelations seen recently)? The health and safety committee administrators have been clear: these are “HR” issues, outside of the health and safety committees’ purview.

Each Committee is Unique

The tone of the recent Cañada and CSM Health and Safety Committee meetings, now chaired by VP’s of Administrative Services Ludmila Prisecar and Micaela Ochoa respectively, has remained collegial. The meetings are mostly concerned with hearing reports from health and safety personnel with as little as 5 to 10 minutes of “Round Table” time scheduled to hear feedback from committee members, and few actions taken.

At Skyline College, however, some safety personnel do not seem to have accepted the new role for the college safety committees as the primary place for staff to raise questions and concerns and provide feedback regarding working conditions under COVID. This expanded role was explicitly laid out by Chancellor Claire just before summer when the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was disbanded. A number of Skyline College faculty have been attending and voicing concerns regularly, pointing out that in operating in the “business as usual” mode, the committee has not adapted to effectively prioritize employees’ concerns: Covid must be front and center in the committee’s deliberations. This has made for a more contentious meeting space. One manager at Skyline’s October 8 Health, Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee (HSEPC) meeting stated:

“One thing that I was concerned about hearing earlier in the presentation is that I’m hearing a recurring theme: some people saying they don’t know who to report information to…All these people sitting on information, saying they don’t know where to go, I don’t get it…Everyone should be sharing information that they are concerned about and not wondering where to go with it. 

The other thing is… I heard an earlier request also, that this committee needs to work differently. I completely disagree. We’re working within the charge that we have. A lot of the information that’s coming out is not appropriate for this group. We are not a policy group. We are not going to become a policy group. I agree that a lot of this information should be shared with the Board of Trustees and other venues within the District, but I don’t think it serves anybody’s purpose to redesign the Health and Safety Committee to do things that we are not in charge or authorized to be doing.”

Also during this meeting, faculty learned that the universal indoor masking requirement that AFT worked to advocate for during summer may expire at the end of December, and that the District, like San Mateo County, could revert to requiring indoor masking for unvaccinated people only, which AFT has pointed out only serves to marginalize students and employees. Regarding social distancing, some faculty were surprised to learn that despite the increased contagiousness of the Delta virus, the District still uses the 6 feet for distance and 15 minutes for length of exposure as preconditions that would make it less likely that someone was exposed to enough virus to cause an infection. The CDC’s own website has adapted this information.

Skyline faculty propose improvements to safety committee processes

Many of the Skyline faculty who have been concerned about the committee’s lack of responsiveness to Covid issues met recently to draft a list of health and safety concerns and proposed improvements to the way the committee does business that they hope to see put into place.

At AFT’s October membership meeting, attendees formed groups by campus to recommend additional actions as well.

Participatory governance is our right! What can faculty do?

AFT will continue to work for the health and safety of all faculty. Your participation can make a difference.

On October 13, Faculty members Amber Steele and Rosemary Bell (in photos above) spoke out about their health and safety concerns at the Board of Trustees. Other faculty may also raise additional issues about returning to work safely at the Oct 27th Board meeting.

  • Attend your upcoming campus Health & Safety Committee meetings
    • Cañada College – October 28, 11am-12:30 (new time) : Zoom link
    • College of San Mateo – October 28, 2pm-? :  Zoom link
    • Skyline College – revised time and date remain under consideration.
  • Contact your AFT Safety Committee reps with your concerns:
    • Cañada College: Michael Hoffman, Lorraine Barrales-Ramirez
    • College of San Mateo: David Lau, Jesenia Diaz
    • Skyline College: Lori Slicton, Jessica Silver-Sharp
  • Tell your campus safety committee chair(s) they must give sufficient time for our input and questions.
  • Attend Board of Trustees meetings to learn about the latest policies. Consider speaking out with your colleagues during the public comments on October 27.
  • Attend a Contract Action Team (CAT) meeting. The next meeting is October 20 at 4pm by Zoom

For recent coverage of this issue in the Advocate, also see “We are still in a pandemic” and “College Health & Safety Committees play central role in plans for return to safe in-person work

Links to Important Resources