Despite Boston University’s comprehensive COVID-19 testing policies this Fall, some BU community members are unable to reap the benefits of on-campus testing sites.
Faculty who are unable to teach in person, faculty member Daniel Star said, are not eligible to use BU testing facilities. Students and staff said they believe BU’s policies coerce faculty to endanger themselves in order to do their jobs effectively.
Star, an associate professor of philosophy, wrote in a series of tweets this lack of access makes BU appear to be “punishing” professors who seek accommodations.
Faculty with accommodations are placed into testing categories 3 or 4, according to the University’s “Back to On-Campus Work” guidebook. To be considered part of category 3, faculty must take part in “very limited” in-person interaction with students.
Both categories of faculty are allowed to teach fully remotely, but only faculty in Category 3 are allowed access to office space and testing at BU facilities, according to the Back2BU website.
Star said this is one way he believes the University is exerting pressure on faculty to teach in person. Rather than enticing professors to meet with students through positive incentives — hazard pay, for example — Star said, faculty face consequences, such as losing access to offices and BU’s testing facilities, if they do not.
“There’s no reason why the University shouldn’t be giving people who are still employees and still doing their work but teaching their courses remotely and still meant to do their research … medical tests,” Star said.
However, Star said he has reason to believe pressuring faculty into teaching in person was not why BU crafted its testing policies this way.
Discussions with University leadership, Star said, “verified” to him the University was initially wary about testing all faculty because it was unclear whether additional bodies on campus would cause overcrowding or overwhelm testing sites.
As the semester has progressed however, Star said, a member of the administration suggested testing capacity is no longer an issue. He added that in his own experience, overcrowding at on-campus testing sites has not been a problem.
Access to offices is also important for faculty, Star said, because many professors need a space away from their homes to work and teach. Many faculty members have children, which makes it difficult to work effectively from home, he added. The ultimatum effectively means faculty must now choose between safety and work.
“I don’t think that when you meet up with a student, you immediately get COVID or something,” Star said. “All we’re talking about here is just minimizing risks.”
School of Public Health professor Michael Siegel said he recreated all his classes from memory this semester because he could not retrieve his course plans from his office this Fall.
“It’s kind of ridiculous that you can’t so much as set foot on campus if you’re not teaching,” Siegel said. “It’s almost like a punishment for not teaching in person.”
Siegel said he can understand the University’s push for a more in-person educational experience for undergraduates, because residential life is a big component of the college experience. However, he said he does not see why BU would need to prioritize in-person learning for graduate students in SPH, which tends to not require labs.
“There’s no inherent residential experience,” Siegel said. “If we have to go a semester or two with students online to protect the health of the community, then that’s what you have to do.”
Siegel said he thinks Learn from Anywhere’s biggest flaw is not offering faculty the choice of remote teaching. There’s no “TfA,” he said.
“The students can choose what environment they want to be in,” Siegel said, “but the faculty can’t.”
Jason Prentice, a senior lecturer in BU’s Writing Program who received a remote-work accommodation this semester, said he and other instructors had been arguing for faculty choice since the summer.
Prentice said he pushed for an accommodation because he believed it would allow him to teach better as well as to take care of his young children, who are primarily at home now that they cannot leave for school on most weekdays.
“When it comes down to people having to advocate for themselves, there’s always going to be inequities.” Prentice said. “It depends on who you are and how secure you feel in your employment. It depends on how much your manager likes you.”
Prentice said the process of applying for a medical exemption was “ridiculously difficult,” and that it will become more restrictive for Spring. He said that next semester, breastfeeding mothers will no longer be exempt from the general requirement that all faculty teach in person, a change he called “offensive.”
“It’s a feudal thing,” Prentice said. “It’s who you know and what strings you can pull.”
BU spokesperson Colin Riley wrote in an email BU has “communicated extensively” with faculty and staff about policies through the Back2BU website, BU Today and “Back to On-Campus Work” guides. He added the University follows public health protocols when making policy decisions.
Riley declined to comment further.
BU seniors Madison Sargeant and Leen Arnaout created a petition Nov. 6 asking BU to allow faculty to work from anywhere in the Spring.
Sargeant, a student in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, said reading about how the pandemic has adversely affected working mothers, along with her own experience babysitting for a BU professor, inspired her to start the petition.
“I hate the idea that there’s something that’s completely out of our female professors’ and our female faculty’s control,” Sergeant said. “They’re being expected to choose between their careers and their families.”
Arnaout, who is in the College of Engineering, said the two were also motivated by the contrast in choice offered to students as compared to faculty.
“That academic environment of BU ultimately is our faculty and our staff,” Sergeant said, “so when that is the entire basis of your institution, you don’t treat them like that.”
Christopher Routh, a first-year graduate student in the College of Fine Arts, said he thinks it would be a “good idea” to allow faculty to work from anywhere, but a concern could be whether enough faculty would teach in person if that were an option.
“What would happen if all the teachers decided to be remote?” Routh said. “That wouldn’t support all the students that want to be on campus.”
Routh said he believes all faculty should receive access to BU’s testing facilities because any risks that come with allowing them to do so are worth the rewards.
“I think anyone within the BU circle should be encouraged to get tested as much as they can,” Routh said, “regardless of if they’re here constantly or not.”