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Sunday, January 17, 2021
COVID 19  |  UF

‘It doesn’t have to be this way:’ UF faculty angry with COVID-19 ADA accommodations for Spring

UFF COVID-19

UF has denied 144 UF professors the ability to teach remotely this Spring, leaving some to feel like the university administration has put their safety at risk.

As of Sunday, 222 high-risk faculty members requested accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, most asking to teach remotely. Only 78 people were granted that request, said Jodi Gentry, UF’s vice president of human resources, at a UF Faculty Senate meeting Nov. 19.

Instead, UF provided the remaining professors “enhanced classroom safeguards.” These include personal protective equipment like N95 masks and face shields as well as increased sanitation, wrote Hessy Fernandez, UF’s director of issues management and crisis communications, in an email.

UF’s choice to offer the professors the safeguards instead of the remote accommodations comes as COVID-19 cases surge statewide. As of Sunday, the university also ranks second in The New York Times’ dashboard of universities with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Each disability accommodation request is handled on a case-by-case basis, Fernandez wrote. The ADA, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination based on disabilities and requires employers to accommodate them. That can include changing a person’s expected responsibilities and increasing accessibility in a workplace.

To receive an accommodation for the Spring, faculty members must fill out a temporary exemption form with their high risk condition and a medical certification, or doctors’ note, confirming the claim. 

Then a UF medical advisory committee, made up of UF Health officials, reviews them and determines whether or not an accommodation can be granted.

Fernandez declined to comment on any of the specific professor denials. In their decision letters, professors were not given a reason their accommodation requests were denied.

The process does not have a set deadline, Fernandez wrote, and requests can be submitted at any time.

Stephanie Smith, a 61-year-old UF English professor and cancer survivor who was denied a remote accommodation, said she didn’t feel UF could guarantee her safety.

Smith said she reached out to her physician at UF Health Shands Hospital, who warned her she was at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19 due to her past chemotherapy treatment.

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Despite that, when she applied for remote teaching in the Spring, she was denied. That caused her to consider retirement for the first time in her 30-year tenure at UF, she said.

“They're doing it in a way that is causing a lot of people anxiety, stress, fear and anger,” Smith said. “It doesn't have to be this way.”

Bobby Mermer, a co-chair of Graduate Assistants United-UF, the graduate student union, said he wants professors who are older than 50, have pre-existing medical conditions or care for other at-risk family members to be given the option to teach remotely.

Those are the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who recommend those in such categories take extra precautions.

“The accommodations that are being offered are perfunctory,” Mermer said.

He would also like to see in-person classes restricted to buildings built in the last 30 years.

“The university should err on the side of caution,” Mermer said.

In a June article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Arlene Kanter, the director of the disability law and policy program at Syracuse, wrote most courts have not considered working from home a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 

In those cases, colleges and universities may consider it an undue hardship, which allows an employer to deny an accommodation it deems as too difficult and unnecessary to grant, she wrote.

Malini Schueller, a 63-year-old UF English professor, was denied a remote accommodation despite having asthma, she said.

Schueller said she is set to teach her Spring course, which centers on Asian American and African American interactions, in Matherly Hall, which was built in 1953. Schueller spent the Fall semester teaching her three global colonialism courses online. 

Schueller, who said she hasn’t been to a grocery store since the onset of the pandemic, is not sure whether she’ll enter a classroom next semester. But she feared losing her job. 

“It just seems like I put in my hard effort for this university and for the department and, when I need something, the university is just telling me to go dot-dot-dot myself,” Schueller said.

Both GAU-UF and United Faculty of Florida-UF, the faculty union, introduced a number of measures to combat face-to-face courses. That included a petition signed by over 3,300 people as of Nov. 29, a public press conference and multiple protests.

UF has long stated its desire to return to pre-COVID-19 levels of operation in Spring and announced plans last month to have more in-person courses.

This comes despite COVID-19 cases once again surging throughout the nation. Florida reported more than 10,000 new cases on Nov. 15, the highest number since late July.

“They’re accommodating them by providing an N95 mask and a face shield,” said Paul Ortiz, the chair of the United Faculty of Florida-UF, the faculty union. “That stretches the idea of what I would call an accommodation.”

Other Florida universities have taken different approaches. Florida Atlantic University passed a resolution on Nov. 16 that allows faculty and staff who are older than 65 or care for those at high risk for COVID-19 to be equally considered for a remote teaching assignment.

A UF School of Architecture professor who taught online this semester described the accommodation process — coming amid conversations about furloughs — as “unspoken blackmail.”

The professor, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of losing his job, was denied a remote accommodation despite having asthma and a heart condition.

He said UF should be more proactive in how it manages the crisis, including delaying the start of in-person classes until summer. 

“This is what the university must understand — no one wants this, but we have to be sensible to each other,” the professor said.

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