Move-in day at the University of Maryland, College Park, is little more than a week away, and campus workers say their worries about reopening persist.
On Tuesday evening, the union representing a large number of workers at Maryland universities held a drive-by protest on the College Park campus, during which they demanded that the school, and the entire University System of Maryland, bargain with state workers to create a more comprehensive COVID-19 plan.
The caravan of about 50 cars drove by the main administration building at Maryland, where the dorms are expected to be about half-full come next week.
“Time’s running short,” said Todd Holden, president of the AFSCME union chapter representing the University of Maryland’s workers. “And there really is only one chance to get this right.”
In late July, the University System of Maryland, which includes about a dozen campuses in the state, mandated COVID-19 tests for students and faculty returning to campus. It was a major victory, Holden said, but questions remain, particularly as news filters in from universities across the country that have already opened their doors.
Particularly worrying is this week’s news out of the University of North Carolina, Holden said. Officials there decided to close the school and administer classes online after just a week, since 177 students had tested positive for COVID-19.
Several Maryland universities outside of USM have already chosen to hold their fall semesters entirely online, including Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and Loyola University Maryland.
But the system is forging ahead..
The system has told AFSCME that it needs to bargain with the individual campuses, Holden said, but the individual campuses are looking to direction from USM. The University of Maryland union filed a complaint July 10 with the State Higher Education Labor Relations Board over the system’s alleged refusal to bargain about COVID-19 issues.
“We obviously have an interest in making sure that campuses open and people continue to work,” Holden said. “But at the same time, our demand to negotiate over health and safety is really predicated on the fact that you need to listen to what those worker experiences are.”
In a statement, the university system defended its reopening procedures.
“Leaders of USM institutions have worked extremely hard over the past several months to ready their campuses for the unique circumstances of this fall return,” the statement read. “This work — which has been informed by the latest federal, state and local public health information — has focused on de-densifying campuses to the maximum extent possible, as well as requiring that students, employees, and campus visitors meet requirements.”
Individuals are expected to use face coverings in campus buildings and on campus grounds, the system’s statement read, and practice physical distancing of at least six feet, comply with local laws about gatherings, practice hand hygiene and monitor their symptoms daily.
Meanwhile, in a recent survey conducted by the union, more than 40% of 1,400 union members from University System of Maryland schools, Morgan State University, Baltimore City Community College and St. Mary’s College of Maryland said they were concerned “a great deal” about their campus’s reopening plans.
More than 50% of the respondents said they worry that COVID-19 testing, screening or contact tracing procedures will be inadequate. About 56% said their campuses have no specific testing schedule, and 38% said there is no on-campus screening or temperature checks at campus entrances or in individual buildings.
About 46% of respondents said they work in an area without proper ventilation, increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19.
About 63% said they worry they wouldn’t be notified in a timely manner if someone on their campus or in their building tested positive for COVID-19.
Maria Ayala, a University of Maryland housekeeper, said she worries she wouldn’t be notified quickly, because a housekeeper tested positive earlier this year, and information was hard to come by.
Ayala said she planned to join Tuesday’s demonstration to push for more strict testing and screening. At the moment, the university is asking workers who report to campus to fill out a form listing their temperature and any COVID-19 symptoms they may be experiencing. But Ayala said she feels screening would be more effective if screening were done in-person when employees report to work.
Jeremy Weiner has been reporting to work at McKeldin Library on the University of Maryland’s campus every other week, and at the moment, he said he feels safe, since the building isn’t open to the public. But Weiner said he sees concerning behavior on campus, including individuals walking around campus without masks.
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Weiner said he’s also concerned about on-campus COVID-19 testing. Several weeks ago, he chose to get tested there, and it took seven days for him to get his results.
“That sort of makes the test useless,” he said. “How am I supposed to feel safe when people are being tested and then waiting a week for the results?”
Still, move-in day is hanging over some workers like a cloud, particularly those working in dorms like Ayala.
“They don’t come by themselves, they come in with the whole family,” Ayala said.
Ayala’s also worried about her 5-year-old son, who will have to take classes online. His older sibling has been caring for him, Ayala said, but now that sibling has classes of her own. So Ayala said she’s also hoping the university will provide more leave for campus workers in light of the pandemic.
“Sometimes, I cannot sleep,” she said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”