Petition from Bates faculty, staff, and students for a safer reopening plan

July 28, 2020

Bates College recently announced its intention to bring all students back to campus for in-person living and learning this fall. Although we want nothing more than a return to Bates's residential living/learning community, and deeply empathize with students' desire to return, the unprecedented and still-worsening public health crisis, in our view, makes a full-scale in-person reopening of campus unwise. We, faculty, students, staff, and members of the College, believe that the decision to significantly increase the on-campus population by bringing all students back, particularly over such a short time frame, is unreasonably optimistic about our capacity to avoid an outbreak, and puts an unfair (and unequal) burden of risk onto individual members of the Bates community. By Bates' own admission, coming back to campus poses a risk of serious injury or death.

Furthermore, we have been repeatedly told that bringing all students back will avoid the deepest financial deficits. However, we are skeptical of this claim as it is highly probable that campus outbreaks or a broader resurgence of the virus would force Bates to go remote again, partway through the fall, which would be both enormously expensive and disruptive. Most troublingly, however, is the fall plan's insidious implication that we must choose between our own health and safety and the College's fiscal solvency in the name of "shared sacrifice". We reject this false choice on a multitude of ethical and practical grounds. For a "people-driven" institution such as ours, the health and safety of its members underlie its very existence.

We come together to petition the College to revise its plans to address two fundamental questions about how we as an institution can more justly navigate this crisis: How will Bates keep all members of its community healthy and free from avoidable harm? and how will Bates repair those in our community who endure harm as a result of the pandemic? We believe the following actions address these questions (click to expand each bullet point):

  1. In the US, the coronavirus pandemic is breaking records nearly every day. The reopening plan released on June 30 was constructed on the premise that the pandemic would be managed by August 2020. Bates adopted a modular calendar that would increase flexibility to respond to unforeseen circumstances such as this broader resurgence of the virus.

    A phased opening starting with a fraction of the student body invited to campus, depending on their individual needs, will ensure much greater safety of the community by having a lower campus density, ensure that the testing capacity is at par with needs, and give us the ability to observe and learn about the challenges of campus living in a controlled manner. Depending on the state of the pandemic in our campus community and that outside, we could make a more informed and safer decision to invite additional students to campus in Module B.

    Reasons to consider scaled-back and phased reopening include:

    • In the US, the daily new cases at present are nearly three times as many as they were in early April. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently declared that the disease is "out of control".
    • The current reopening plan was developed under the assumption that the US would bring the spread of Covid-19 under control by the end of the summer, which no longer applies.
    • The Lewiston/Auburn area has the highest per-capita Covid-19 caseload in the state of Maine, which could both contribute to and/or be exacerbated by an outbreak on campus.
    • There is a real possibility of transmission from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals. Coupled with this, some diagnostic tests have high false-negative rates. A recent outbreak occurred at the Central Maine Medical Center starting with an individual whose test returned a false-negative result.
    • In recent weeks, outbreaks have occurred in other residential campuses across the country, some of which had both strict mask-wearing and universal testing protocols.
    • A growing number of institutions, including Dickinson College, Rhodes College, Occidental College, Spelman College, and Morehouse College have reversed initial plans to reopen in-person and will be fully remote. Rhodes College, which has a similar endowment as Bates, announced they will be remote in the fall due to public health concerns and infrastructural limitations.
    • Much, if not all of our existing building infrastructure provides inadequate air flow to prevent stagnant air. The Mayo Clinic experts unambiguously pointed to the importance of good air-flow in enclosed spaces like classrooms, in addition to social-distancing and masks.
    • The Bates Fall Plan's proposed density of student dorms exceeds the American College Health Association's guidelines of one student per room.
    • Hundreds of students will need to simultaneously take their masks off indoors to eat in the dining halls multiple times per day. Close contacts in other communal spaces such as hallways, lounges, and bathrooms, are inevitable.
    • Partying and other social behavior that has historically been part of many Bates students' experiences is highly likely and has caused recent "super-spreader" events in other college communities. Even though Bates has issued consequences of students failing to abide by guidelines, the difficulty in enforcing these guidelines both undermines the health and safety of students and potentially carries serious privacy and bias issues.
    • The company hired to carry out the testing, Broad Institute, has so far only conducted ~300,000 tests cumulatively with a maximum of 8,000 tests in a single-day. Broad officials say they could ramp up to 100,000 tests a day within a few weeks to accommodate the many colleges and universities on its client list. We think this degree of scaling-up testing capacity in the short time frame would be extremely difficult and would likely not succeed.
    • As of July 26, there is an "insurmountable" backlog of tests. In Massachusetts, turnaround times exceed one week. Dickinson College cited testing delays in its decision to rescind its plan to open in-person.
  2. Bates's recently issued public health guidelines for employees and students contain rigorous behavioral expectations and severe sanctions for infractions, but offer little in the way of compensatory measures. The guidelines (and the waiver) fail to recognize that students and employees may contract Covid simply as a result of daily life on campus and through no fault of their own.

    Furthermore, not all employees have health insurance, and many of those who do would face high out-of-pocket deductibles to cover any expenses resulting from contracting Covid. Although the administration has claimed that employees would be covered by workers' compensation, there is no evidence that it would in fact apply. Indeed, the evidence points to the contrary, since it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to definitively show that Covid transmission occurred on-campus (or anywhere), and is certainly not something that College's state-certified contact tracers are trained to do.

    In short, the college is shifting all burden of risk and responsibility onto individual members of our community, an especially disproportionate “ask” for the vast majority of employees who labor without any formal commitment from the College regarding long-term job security.

    Bates can't control the campus environment to such an extent that any person who adheres to the guidelines can be assured of their safety. If campus is open in any capacity, the college should ensure that anyone who must work on campus will receive adequate Covid-19 care, including for long-term Covid-related injuries.

  3. Although faculty and students have rightly been given the option to choose whether to teach or attend in-person or remotely, individual staff members have not been given this autonomy, and permission to work remotely remains at the discretion of their supervisor.

    We recognize, however, that not all work can be done remotely. Therefore, the hourly staff on the front lines of Covid exposure in any in-person scenario – our dining, custodial, and maintenance/facility employees who are already among the lowest-paid workers – deserve additional compensation in the form of hazard pay.

  4. In keeping with the student petition issued in early July, Bates's tuition plan should reflect the extraordinary financial uncertainty that has been caused by COVID-19, as well as the compromised student experience that Bates students are entering. Peer institutions are offering up to a 15% reduction in tuition and deferred payment plans, and many colleges are freezing tuition for the upcoming year. We expect Bates to offer its students and their families financial options that respond to—rather than disregard—the impacts of the current crises.

  5. Any such plan should begin with an articulation of the values and principles of how members of the community will be kept healthy and free from avoidable Covid-related harm and/or repaired in the event of harm, and would recognize that health, wellbeing, and livelihoods are inseparable parts of allowing all in our community to flourish.

    The plan must also include a progressive hierarchy of fiscal actions to take both now and in response to any future deficits; one that will prioritize the most vulnerable. Workers' livelihoods--particularly our lowest-paid hourly staff--should be placed above the maintenance of financial assets and credit ratings.

    Such a hierarchy would include, in order of preference, the following actions:

    • Lobbying Congress for additional student financial aid & extended supplemental unemployment insurance;
    • Utilizing the College's reserves;
    • Maximizing annual withdrawal from our endowment, which in this case means exceeding the typical “5% rule” draw.
    • Integrating a Covid-centered plan into the ongoing Bates fundraising campaign, with an emphasis on unrestricted gifts for students financial aid and employee job security;
    • In light of historically low interest rates, borrowing to cover any gaps not met through the actions above,
    • If all of the actions above are exhausted, progressive pay cuts should be enacted by temporarily capping salaries of the highest-paid employees, and moving that cap down until the deficit is closed.
    • Only if all of the above fail should the College consider last-resort measures equitable furloughs (with assistance accessing state/federal aid), job-sharing, or equitable layoffs.
  6. Bates depends on its workers to see the college through this crisis. At a time when 1 in 5 American workers are jobless, and with most Bates employees' health insurance dependent on continued employment, the college must act to ensure its workers' economic wellbeing by:

    • Immediately extending contracts of all tenure ineligible faculty by at least one year.
    • Converting all staff members' contracts from “at-will” to “just cause”
    • Commiting to a longer-term, democratically informed plan to eradicate economic precarity within the college, which predated Covid-19, to ensure that all current employees have job security when we “return to normal”.
  7. The wider community must not fall collateral victim of Bates's high-risk reopening plan. Even though Bates is actively discouraging families from accompanying their students, by inviting nearly 2,000 students from all 50 states and 73 countries into Maine and the L/A community over three days, Bates invites extraordinary risk over which L/A community members have had no say. We already know Maine has the nation's worst COVID-19 racial disparity; Bates should be participating in a solution, not exacerbating the problem. In keeping with Bates's stated commitment to anti-racism and social justice, Bates should allocate testing and health care resources to those it is placing at risk, and center the voices and perspectives of L/A community partners in deciding how Bates's resources should be best utilized.

We call on Bates to abide by the moral standard that every life is worth protecting from harm. It is imperative that Bates makes choices in alignment with this value in its address of the current crisis. If we are all in this together, we all need to come out of this together, healthy, safe, and secure.

Bates Solidarity.

We are a group of mostly tenure ineligible faculty and staff. We have chosen to voice our concerns anonymously over fear of reprisals.

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