University of Florida professors speak out on in-person classes controversy

Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 7:27 PM EST
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - Controversy continues at the University of Florida following President Kent Fuch’s order to return to in-person classes for the Spring 2021 semester.

A New York Times article has listed UF as the university with the second most number of COVID cases in the nation. According to data released by UF, 222 faculty applications requesting to work remotely due to being at-risk for COVID, were received. According to a report from the United Faculty of Florida, 65% of those requests were denied.

The ten-page report from UFF details the experiences of some of those members who were denied. Their high-risk characteristics include pregnancy, weakened immune systems, diabetes, chronic asthma, and auto-immune disorders.

Some members are choosing to stay anonymous, while others are choosing to tell their stories. After 30 years of teaching at UF, professor Stephanie Smith is faced with few options after being told by her doctor that her underlying conditions put her at fatal risk for COVID-19.

“I could retire since I am over 60 … they could force me to retire. I would rather retire than die other than that there are very few options … I don’t know what I can do,” she said.

Smith’s request to work remotely was denied and she’s not the only one. According to the report, several members feel the same way. They say in order to resubmit their denied applications, they have to come up with additional conditions that put them at even greater risk.

Professor Malini Johar Schueller has worked at UF since 1986. She also has underlying conditions that have led her doctor to advise her not to return to the classroom.

“I have worked very hard for this university and I think it is really un-generous and mean-spirited and not responsible of them not to grant accommodation when a faculty member needs it,” she said. “They say you can grieve ... it but you have to come up with another condition ... so I am sorry I cannot come up with cancer or something right now. I am sad the university would do this to me ... like ‘thank you so much for working so hard for the university ... you can now go kill yourself if you want.’”

The university has responded with this statement:

The University of Florida Office for Accessibility and Gender Equity continues to work with UF Health and Human Resources as part of an interactive process for employee accommodations as we prepare to provide more face-to-face classes during the spring 2021 semester. UF remains committed to following the guidance of our experts at UF Health and the CDC related to physical distancing and mask-wearing in providing a safer and healthier learning environment while living, learning and working with COVID.

As of today, 222 faculty applications have been reviewed in consultation with the medical advisory committee, and all received an accommodation of some type: 78 received remote teaching accommodations, and 144 faculty will receive enhanced classroom safeguards, in keeping with the university’s preparations for the spring semester.

Each accommodation request is different and unique. In consultation with a medical advisory team of physician specialists in epidemiology and infectious disease, each request is individually analyzed. The Office of Accessibility and Gender Equity is processing each accommodation request as quickly as possible while ensuring each request, along with supporting information, is thoroughly reviewed. Employees seeking accommodations based on additional or clarified information may re-submit or amend their accommodation request at any time. UF’s goal is to provide students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities an open, safe, and welcoming campus.

The university emphasized that they have addressed all 222 applications to some degree, with 78 of them being remote teaching accommodations. Other accommodations include providing PPE equipment to members, which is what Professor Smith was offered.

“The letter of denial was upsetting because it essentially said that UF’s own medical team decided that hand sanitizer and masks were sufficient accommodation for me ... which my doctor flatly refused,” Smith said.

She says with being over the age of 60 and suffering from chronic asthma as well as facing additional immunocompromising factors, such accommodations are not enough and they won’t be for the majority of staff.

“Until there is a vaccine, they are simply playing Russian Roulette with people’s lives. I don’t know if you are aware of this ... but really most of the faculty at UF are over 60 ... and that is just taking a risk that is unacceptable.”

To find the full UFF report, click HERE.

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