Howard University Credit: Darrow Montgomery

DCPS isn’t the only school system facing concern about the start of in-person fall classes. Since classes formally resumed on Aug. 23, Howard University has seen a slew of tense exchanges between faculty and school administrators over faculty’s concerns about health and safety. Prominent faculty concerns include: the school pushing back the deadline for students and staff who will be on campus to be fully vaccinated; the expectation that classes be in person (with few exceptions); lags in the faculty accommodations request process; and issues with adequate ventilation, temperature, and humidity levels in classrooms. 

The tensions come as case numbers and hospitalizations in D.C. rise to pre-vaccine levels. The fear of coronavirus transmission is also emerging when more folks than average will be on campus, which has led to a #homelessathoward housing crisis.  

The high enrollment rate (according to the Post, about 2,300 freshmen this year for Howard University) is due in part to students’ desire for normalcy after a year and a half of pandemic-fueled isolation.

So let’s break down some of the back-to-school Bison beef at Howard University.

Bison S.A.F.E.

Howard’s pandemic response plan, “Bison S.A.F.E.,” breaks down its COVID-19 protections for the college community based on four acronymic (and rather generic) guidelines: supporting the community; advocating for those at-risk; facilitating culturally sensitive, inclusive, and ethical research; and educating the public on best safety practices. 

How these guidelines play out is both a source of pride for school administrators and one of distress for full-time faculty senate members.

As part of Bison S.A.F.E., students, faculty, and staff are required to complete a self-assessment of symptoms and potential exposure to COVID-19 on an app before visiting campus. The school also uses the app to send safety announcements. Following pop-up COVID testing sites on campus on Aug. 26 and 27, the school mandated new monitored self-testing, according to the school website. University updates on May 26 and Aug. 25 assert that all students who lack a medical or religious exemption must submit a proof of full vaccination online before arriving on campus for the fall semester. An announcement on the same website on Aug. 3 added COVID-19 vaccination deadlines for faculty and staff as well: Sept. 3 for the first dose and Oct. 1 for the second. 

Faculty Senate Says …

For the faculty senate body, measures like COVID testing on campus and self-assessments are just a drop in the bucket.

Faculty senate chair and professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy Dr. Marcus Alfred, on behalf of the 957 registered faculty senate members (many of whom he says fear going on record about their concerns due to their status as untenured), decried the following among a long list of concerns:

A lack of official options for faculty to choose their instructional mode, which would allow professors to hold virtual classes if necessary:

In a meeting on Aug. 20 designed to discuss this principal point of contention, many faculty senate members (including two student leaders, who are ad hoc members of the senate) expressed their desire to have the option for an instructional mode.

Alfred told City Paper that many faculty members are worried about infecting immunocompromised family members and, for some, a heightened risk of COVID-19 complications. He has received complaints from fellow staff members that some faculty, even those with medical recommendations to not be in a classroom, haven’t received an exemption from face-to-face instruction or have received a partial waiver for one class but not another class. 

Inconsistent communications around vaccination policy: 

In a letter to the school president dated Aug. 26, Alfred pointed out that in a July 15 letter from the school to faculty, provost Dr. Anthony K. Wutoh stated that all students who will be on campus for any reason will be required to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 1, but then issued a conflicting statement to faculty on Aug. 25, lauding climbing vaccination rates, with 63 percent of students submitting proof of COVID-19 vaccination or an exemption.   

An environment that isn’t welcoming to untenured faculty members voicing COVID-19 concerns

A fear of potential retaliation if they criticize the school makes this situation a double-edged sword for untenured faculty, who don’t have the job security that professors on tenure enjoy. 

“Some faculty are having to make a terrible choice,” Alfred said. “They either risk backlash and retaliation for speaking out about problems, or they risk heightened exposure to COVID by staying quiet.”

A classroom environment with inadequate circulation: 

Alfred told City Paper he didn’t see an air purifier (which the school promised for every indoor class space) on the first day of class, and could only open the window for circulation. A photo from a colleague showed an AeraMax 90 air purifier, which manufacturers claim is designed to clean spaces of up to 100-200 square feet, in the chemistry auditorium where the faculty member was assigned to teach. Based on the professor’s measurements, the auditorium is 48.4 feet by 48.5 feet. 

A lack of transparency about COVID-19 cases:  

“We’re not asking for confidential information,” said Alfred. “But it’s not really clear what the number of cases are.” He pointed out that he had only seen a school communication with COVID-19 numbers in a letter the office of the provost addressed to faculty on Aug. 27, which provided the following stats for testing on Aug. 26:

“The pop-up testing sites tested 644 students and 117 faculty and staff who participated in the distributed self-monitored testing process. Among the students, eight were positive (1.2 percent), and among the faculty and staff, two tested positive (1.7 percent). Each of these individuals are being contacted in activation of our contact tracing process. This week, we have completed 2,318 tests, which resulted in a 1.2 percent overall positivity rate across faculty, staff and students.”

Social distancing

While the faculty senate hasn’t discussed ways to mitigate social distancing, faculty members have voiced concerns about how the school can help implement this CDC safety guideline. A photo City Paper received that a faculty member says is from the building housing the School of Business shows groups of multiple students speaking in a circle inches from each other, some of whom have their masks pulled down halfway or entirely. 

The School Says …

While City Paper could not obtain responses to all above concerns from Howard University, as some of these were mentioned in an interview on the date of publication, letters between the school and faculty senate chair, as well as an interview with the university provost, speak to some of the stated concerns. As this is a developing story, City Paper will update as more information comes to light.  

Allowing professors to choose their own instructional mode is not as easy as it sounds: In a letter dated Aug. 21, university president Dr. Wayne Frederick wrote that the remote synchronous instructional mode allowed last academic year was due to a special waiver that expired May 31. 

In an interview with City Paper, Wutoh mentioned that there was a process for faculty to be considered for online instruction. The policy, he said, requires that 1) faculty be certified to teach online and 2) that they would have approval through the department chair and the dean. But it’s not clear whether this policy is an internal one that the school can change or a policy from the department of education or school sponsor. 

Wutoh also pointed out that the letter request from Alfred on behalf of the faculty senate was sent just a few days before the start of the semester, which made the request infeasible. “That was … just an inappropriate time to be requesting a significant change in the instructional modality of courses as the semester was beginning to start,” he said. 

(When asked about the late time frame for the request, Alfred told City Paper that many faculty members, himself included, are staff hired for only a 9-month period and have research and writing commitments for grants, so many aren’t able to dedicate the time and attention during much of the summer to regularly check university communications and organize for change. When asked about why faculty didn’t start the process in the spring, Alfred said fears then were mitigated by the promise of high local vaccination rates and lower rates of COVID-19.)  

Wutoh added that many students have specifically asked for face-to-face instruction. “It has an impact on our students and families that we didn’t think would be fair to thrust on them without much notification,” the provost said. 

Howard has ensured each classroom has an air purifier, and then some

Wutoh told City Paper that, contrary to claims made by some faculty, each classroom space has at least one air purifier, and the school has additional air purifiers on stand-by in case further needs arise.  

The school has a robust testing process, but the task of reporting up-to-date COVID numbers and vaccination numbers is arduous:  

Howard is putting protocols in place, and seeking to hire additional staff, to test every person on campus weekly, both on campus and in expanded pop-up sites, according to the provost. The task is a hefty one, requiring steady communication and additional staff on hand to monitor students’ self-testing via kits. So is the task of processing vaccination records and reporting the numbers. 

“We’re getting through the late submissions as quickly as possible,” said Wutoh, referring to vaccine records, some of which have been emailed to the school instead of uploaded through the Howard immunization system, Med+Proctor. “But we expect that that would be completed within the next week or so.”

Accommodation request approval lags aren’t just on the school: 

According to Wutoh, the approval process for faculty accommodations for virtual instruction is just as challenging a task. He told City Paper the school received 60 accommodation requests as of Aug. 31 and are still processing many of them. The provost told City Paper some of the lags are due to the school waiting on faculty to submit the supporting medical documentation.

Back-to-school concerns aren’t the only recent points of contention between faculty—particularly untenured faculty—and school administration at Howard. In early July, an anonymous open letter addressed to Nikole Hannah-Jones asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, author of the watershed The 1619 Project, and new Howard University professor for support in protesting untenured faculty’s working conditions. (Tenure has a particularly close spot in Hannah-Jones’ heart, as she joined Howard after the University of North Carolina denied her tenure despite her department’s recommendation—until months of protests and allegations of racism pummeled UNC.)

For Howard faculty and administrators, the university’s ascension of fame due to high-profile associations with Hannah-Jones and alum Vice President Kamala Harris means the spotlight is on the historically Black college—for Bison-better or COVID-worse. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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