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UPDATE: Union presses COVID safety at U of L Board of Trustees meeting

Several people stand near a statue at the University of Louisville, holding signs with messages asking for better COVID-19 safety on campus during a rally last week.
Around 30 people attended the University of Louisville Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, to continue to ask for better COVID-19 safety,

A group of students, faculty staff and community members is doubling down on efforts to reach University of Louisville administrationafter demanding better COVID-19 safety last week.

Organizers started theKeep All Cardinals Safe petition earlier this month, when the campus community received word that classes would resume in person despite continued new daily records city- and state-wide for COVID-19 as omicron surges. 

Demands include flexibility for staff to switch to remote learning if they deem it necessary for their and their students’ safety and hazard pay for staff who must be there in person. 

The group delivered the petition last week to U of L Interim president Lori Gonzalez with nearly 1,500 signatures. As of Thursday, it had more than 1,700.

That’s when around 30 people rallied outside the U of L Board of Trustees meeting, before going inside and delivering a statement to the board and Gonzalez. 

That included undergraduate student Ashanti Scott, daughter of state Rep. Attica Scott. 

"I just want to say as a student, that president Gonzalez should think about the students at Speed School, the students at Ford Hall, the workers in the SAC, the janitorial staff, and everyone who has put their lives and body on the line,” she said. 

One by one they filed into the meeting, holding signs. One member was given five minutes to speak during public comment. 

Board of trustees member Mary Nixon responded that she appreciated and respected the group showing up, adding that “I hope you would respect that the administration doesn’t take these concerns lightly and has been very diligent in looking at the science and consulting with other groups and consulting with other universities to make sure we’re all making an informed and careful decision.” . 

“And I am confident in the team and the work that they've done and we continue to support the decision that’s been made.”

A request for comment this week from Interim President Gonzalez was not granted, and she didn’t address the issue while the group was in the meeting. 

However in a statement last week, U of L spokesman John Karman explained the university’s decision to start the semester with in-person learning. 

“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,” the statement reads, in part. 

Associate Professor Andrea Olinger said after the meeting that she was very frustrated with the response.

“We are crying out for thought for our safety, and everyone's situation is different,” she said. “The campus really cares about this and we just feel like we’re being brushed off and gaslit.”

Students weigh health risks with education

Graduate student Madison Shannon is one of the hundreds who signed the petition. 

The 22-year-old was born with a congenital heart defect and had her first open heart surgery at birth. When she was 3 years old, she had heart failure and, at 4, underwent a second surgery. 

Shannon had a third surgery in December, and was hospitalized at the start of the semester due to complications. The situation has weakened her immune system so, though she’s fully vaccinated, she's afraid to attend in person right now. She said she's disappointed in the university’s decision to move to in-person learning this semester. 

“That’s really unfortunate because I’ve always thought of U of L as being inclusive and providing a diverse space,” she said. “I just expected more flexibility and compassion and empathy for those that are medically complex and critically ill.

“Especially with me being three weeks post-op, it is very scary. They're taking a lot of precautions with me and everything. I’d probably end up back in the hospital again if I were to get COVID.”

She said she’d been able to participate in some of her classes through video conference, but that she would have to attend in person in February. Last week, Shannon dropped some classes, delaying her graduation, to minimize her risk. 

Teachers say flexibility is key

Michael Cunningham, a professor and psychologist in the school’s department of communications, has studied attitudes around the pandemic. He’s also the chair of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a non-bargaining union. 

Cunningham said in-person learning does tend to be better for students’ mental health and academic performance.

“They get contact with other students: they can compare notes, they can get social support, they can get academic support from classmates,” he said. 

“That relieves anxiety. They can also get the feeling [of whether] their emotions are normal. They get a reduction of loneliness. In other words, they get social stimulation.”

But despite the drawbacks of online learning, Cunningham said instructors need the ability to be flexible during spikes in cases or if they have their own health risks. 

He said faculty were also threatened with disciplinary action if they changed their mode of instruction. 

His union sent a letter to administration after the announcement of in-person classes, asking for flexibility. 

“Instructors are always in the best possession of knowledge about their health and their students' health,” Cunningham said. “And a one-size-fits-all policy is just never going to fit everybody very well.”

COVID cases keep rising

Nathan Schimpf, a graduate assistant and part of the local United Campus Workers chapter, said when Gonzalez didn’t respond to the petition, the group met to discuss next steps. 

Before Thursday, that included phone-banking the administration and asking the campus and wider community to call in support of the petition. Now, they said they’ll continue to meet to discuss where to go next. 

Jefferson County and Kentucky have been reporting new record highs of COVID-19 cases for several weeks. 

Schimpf said that makes continuing with in-person learning – or not allowing flexibility – dangerous. 

“So I really do think that this isn’t just about whether or not U of L's actions cause the spread of the virus,” they said. “It's about whether or not U of L’s actions could potentially cause a mass disabling or even some level of death within the Louisville community.”

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.

News Youth Reporting
Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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