‘Save the CUNY Students’: Students Petition to Cancel In-Person Classes

Brooklyn College Campus. Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner

MIDWOOD – Several universities in New York have shut-down their in-person classes, moving them online because of fears of COVID-19, or coronavirus. Yet, the largest urban university system in the country, City University of New York (CUNY), has decided to keep its in-person classes going.

As of noon today, NYC had 36 confirmed cases, 16 more than yesterday. In Brooklyn alone, there have been six confirmed cases, including a 68-year-old man and a 22-year-old man. As the number of confirmed cases in NY rises to 173, campuses on the east coast including Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard have canceled in-person classes. And CUNY students are becoming frustrated as the same is not being done for CUNY campuses.

A petition titled “Save the CUNY Students” has been circulating and has over 22,000 (and counting) signatures. “Governor [Andrew] Cuomo has acknowledged that we still do not have the necessary testing capabilities Cite,” the petition states. “We, therefore, most likely have students who unknowingly are sick and spreading the virus. It is known that one who is asymptotic can still spread the virus Cite meaning students may not even show signs of being sick when they in reality are.”

“We request that CUNY, a public university, take precautions like other private/public schools and close (or move classes online) while state officials learn more about COVID-19 to limit the spreading of the virus along [with] students and faculty,” the petition continued. “Many of CUNY’s students and faculty have been exposed to people who are now in quarantine or were previously in quarantine. Students’ education should not come at the cost of their health.”

As of today, CUNY is not closing its classes. It states, “the cases have raised CUNY’s level of concern, and Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is preparing for the possibility of our campuses, offices, and neighborhoods being impacted by the virus. Please be assured that CUNY is taking the threat of coronavirus very seriously, and actively preparing to ensure the safety of students, faculty, and staff, along with the continuity of our operations across a range of scenarios.”

According to CUNY, a Coronavirus Task Force was created and is charged with “relaying to all 25 CUNY campuses the latest guidance and information from the CDC, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The Task Force will respond to questions from the campuses and advise the Chancellor about this emerging health threat.”

Additionally, the CUNY website states several tips to prevent yourself from the virus, including, washing hands regularly with soap and water. But at Brooklyn College, one of the bathrooms has a broken sink. An Instagram page that documents things in need of repair at the campus posted a video of the broken sink, and wrote, “Sink isn’t running during our attempts to stay hygienic.”

Students who attend CUNY, rely mostly on public transportation. Brooklyn College, for example, is a commuter campus, where students rely on the bus and train. But, the Mayor is advising people to stay away from public transportation, saying, “Plan to have some extra travel time in your commute. If the train that pulls up is too packed, move to a different car or wait to take the next one. Bike or walk to work if you can.”

On campuses where public transportation is a necessity, students are confused.

Brooklyn College has created its own COVID-19 Response Team. In a letter addressed to faculty and staff, Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson states, “At this time, we are not aware of any COVID-19 cases associated with anyone in the Brooklyn College community. Nevertheless, we are working hard to prepare our campus for the possibility that our day-to-day work may be further impacted.”

“CUNY has canceled all CUNY-sponsored student international travel during the spring semester. We are also reassessing non-essential, large events on a case-by-case basis, and will follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control in so doing.”

“There will be many questions related to COVID-19 as the situation evolves. Please stay level-headed and use common sense.”

The Professional Staff Congress- CUNY (PSC-CUNY), a union that represents 30,000 faculty and staff, listed preliminary demands concerning terms and conditions of employment for PSC bargaining unit members in relation to COVID-19. Such demands include:

  • CUNY will immediately issue information to the entire University community on each college’s schedule for regular and rigorous cleaning and decontamination of all facilities to minimize the risk of contamination. CUNY will provide information to the PSC and other CUNY unions on the disinfectants used in such cleaning and will permit access to facilities, if requested, by licensed health and safety inspectors retained by the PSC.
  • Effective March 10, 2020, CUNY will permit members of the bargaining unit aged 60 or older, members of the bargaining unit who self-identify as at serious health risk if they contract COVID-19, and members of the bargaining unit who share a residence with someone who would be at serious risk if infected with COVID-19 to work temporarily from home or other off-campus location, provided that they notify the College Human Resources Office and make arrangements for off-campus work with their department chair or immediate supervisor. Such employees will be responsible for their normal responsibilities.
  • Faculty with expertise in online instruction shall be identified in each college and invited to provide training for other faculty about effective temporary use of distance learning technology, to be used in the event of a short-term closing of a college or an individual employee’s need, for health reasons, to work remotely. Full-time faculty who agree to provide training will be compensated through the pilot provision on stipends or through appropriate reassigned time. Adjunct faculty who lead such training shall be paid at their full hourly rate. Adjuncts and other hourly workers who attend such training shall use their paid professional hours, if available, or be paid at their full hourly rate.
  • Professional staff, both full-time and hourly, shall be offered the option of staggered shifts wherever possible in order to allow employees to travel to work at times when public transportation may be less crowded than at peak times.
  • Effective March 10, 2020, a member of the bargaining unit who has contracted COVID-19 and who has exhausted their temporary disability leave or, for adjuncts and other employees named in Article 14.8, their personal leave, shall be paid for days absent while ill with COVID-19.
  • All employees working at CUNY, including student employees and employees not on the CUNY payroll, shall be allocated full-paid sick days, to be used if necessary.
  • CUNY will immediately report on the availability of hand-washing facilities in every public restroom located in a CUNY building, specifying whether the restroom provides running water, soap and drying facilities. The report will be updated weekly, and restrooms without adequate facilities for hand-washing will be corrected within 24 hours.

The University Student Senate (USS) at CUNY also released a statement urging Cuomo to “close CUNY schools immediately, encourage CUNY to transition to online classes and provide any additional resources needed to combat this outbreak. Anything less is a disservice to our students, their families, and our institution’s mission,” the statement states.

Just today, a now-deleted Tweet was circling around saying an employee at the campus tested positive for the virus. Brooklyn College confirmed that it was false.

“We’re hearing rumors that a Brooklyn College library employee has tested positive for Coronavirus. This is false,” the College stated. “We are asking people to report to us if they have tested positive or have been asked to quarantine by health officials. We are tracking and monitoring all situations and know of no instances of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 being on our campus.”

But such statements by the College are not enough for students.

“I think that for myself and many other students, we are acutely aware of CUNY’s lackluster response in handling the coronavirus containment compared to private institutions across the city,” Finn Mayock, a Brooklyn College senior told Bklyner. “As a school that is geared predominately toward low income and working-class students, most of whom travel from every borough using public transportation, the concerns about spreading the virus are real and on the minds of every student.”

“Coronavirus is dominating the discussion around each and every class that I’ve had this week,” Mayock continued. “People are worried that our college is going to become a vector point for the disease.”