CUNY’s fall reopening: a work in progress

Queens College will prioritize in-person instruction for classes that need it.

City University of New York Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez announced back in January that the university would plan a return to “mostly in-person instruction and support” in the fall after over a year of mostly remote learning.

With that call, the logistics of the reopening fell on each individual campus.

As campuses begin to formalize plans for safety and staffing, the blueprints will take shape amidst a labor fight in the wake of the passing of the state budget. The restoration of the 20 percent of state funding for CUNY that was withheld by Gov. Cuomo this past year signaled a world of possibilities for students, professors and other staff who are part of the massive university system.

Now the Professional Staff Congress, the union of CUNY professors and employees, is asking CUNY administrators to make commitments as to how they will spend both the money restored in the state budget as well as separate streams of funding that each campus is set to receive from the various stimulus bills the federal government passed over the past year as each campus designs its own reopening plan.

The union organized a march on Wednesday to demand that the system address “punitive fiscal actions,” taken last year when it was thought that it was heading toward fiscal crisis. The state budget restores some $26.2 million that was cut from CUNY in 2020 as a result of pandemic austerity. Now the union is asking for a contractual pay raise and the reappointment of all the adjunct professors who were laid off last June.

With much to be worked out in the coming months, the one part of the reopening that has solidified is the central CUNY administration minimum guidelines for all campuses. Each campus will have to adhere to those rules before taking its own unique demands into consideration.

The university-wide safety guidance includes mandatory face covering in class or any time students or staff come within 6 feet of another person whom they don’t live with. Even with face coverings, they also require that no building can exceed 50 percent of maximum capacity.

As a growing number of colleges and universities across the country, including some state university systems, have said vaccinations will be mandatory for the fall of 2021, CUNY has not indicated whether that will be the case on its campuses.

Meanwhile the PSC has begun pushing for the university to track who has been vaccinated as students and staff begin to return to campus as well.

“What the union would like to see is people being required to show either that they’ve been vaccinated or that they’ve had a recent Covid test to come onto campus,” said Jean Grassman, a faculty member at the CUNY School of Public Health and safety watchdog for the PSC.

Grassman added that another goal of the union is making sure the infrastructure, specifically ventilation systems, is up to par.

“A lot of our effort has gone toward ensuring that there is adequate ventilation. That’s a huge thing,” said Grassman, adding that many of the system’s buildings have old HVAC systems that need to be cleaned or have parts replaced.

In Queens for the most part the individual campuses’ plans remain in early or vague stages. Queens College President Frank H. Wu said that college will prioritize in-person classes when pedagogically necessary as in the cases of seminars, studio art or science labs.

“Some classes, especially large lectures, will remain online. Others will be hybrid, with the hope that the situation permits them to be conducted primarily in person,” he wrote in a statement.

Though Wu’s remarks don’t give a detailed picture of what instruction will look like, David Gerwin, chairman of Queens College’s chapter of the PSC, said what he’s heard from the campus reopening committee indicates “at this stage of planning, my understanding is that at peak there will be about 45 classes meeting in-person at the same time, at any given time. And so that just isn’t a lot compared to a normal year.”

A LaGuardia Community College spokesperson said it is planning to hold as many in-person classes during fall 2021 as is considered safe under state, city and CUNY guidelines, but did not add any concrete figures.

Queensborough Community College said the fall will likely consist of a mix of online and in-person teaching and learning, and research, “which will enable students to have a campus experience.” The spokesperson added that multiple factors including course availability, student demand and overall enrollment will determine if the campus will hire additional adjuncts.

A York College spokesperson did not provide the Chronicle an update on the school’s plans in time for publication.

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