What about the staff?

There’s been plenty of discussion across the country surrounding how America’s colleges and universities will reopen in the fall. Each day brings about announcements from schools (though note how many institutions couch their intentions with words such as “planning to,” “exploring” and “leaning toward”) regarding how instruction will be delivered.

Optimism is good, and of course all of us in higher education want faculty and students back on campus, thriving in the classroom and the lab, and having those conversations that form powerful mentoring relationships.

But what if it’s not safe for faculty and students to engage in all of that? Of course, the nightmare scenario is university leaders having to choose between remote-only instruction or none at all. Yes, that could happen, but, again, let’s be optimistic.

However, as we determine what’s best for the well being of faculty and students, let’s not forget the men and women who answer the phones, serve the food, clean the buildings, mow the lawns, protect the students, process the myriad forms, run the health and counseling centers, and more.

Staff can’t be forgotten as an assessment about campus health and safety is made. In many ways, they are the most vulnerable people on the campus; faculty at many institutions work under a union contract that affords significant benefits to employment. In addition, tenure exists even if there is no union agreement in place. Faculty also might be on campus only a few days per week. Staff don’t enjoy benefits anywhere close to what full-time faculty do.

Compounding the concern: Staff often work in close proximity, an arrangement that seems impractical whenever the campus reopens.

Consider this report from Vice. Perhaps the most important takeaway:

And even if an employer does everything right, a COVID-19 outbreak at the office will remain a distinct possibility. Considering what it will take to get everyone back to the offices—what with the masks, the empty offices, the staggering, the uncertainty, and the overarching anxiety—perhaps the question isn’t when the WFH-ers will return to work again, but when they’ll head back home.

WFH-ers, by the way, are the current Work From Homers, and in connection with the Vice report they would include faculty and staff. How much work could a staff person continue to do from home? There’s no simple answer: The administrative assistant likely could continue completing his or her tasks, aided by video or phone meetings with their department head, dean or other administrator regarding specific projects. But can the counselor in the health center? How can he or she work away from campus, if the students have returned? The facilities team also needs to be on site each day.

I recognize that any discussion about what happens in the fall is moot if the public health situation doesn’t allow faculty, staff and students to return to campus. We can analyze what the financial fallout would mean to the institution, if that were to happen. We can go back and forth about whether the quality of instruction might suffer. We can go round and round about social distancing.

But we can’t ignore that the first round of layoffs almost certainly would be to staff rather than to faculty. On top of that, staff are on ground each day, and their close interactions with many people could put them at risk for being the first to contract coronavirus.

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