Faculty and students from the San Mateo County Community College District are demanding safer campus conditions after in-person classes began this week amid a sustained winter surge of COVID-19 cases and what they argue are insufficient resources.
“I have been a pretty relentless cheerleader for the district for 20 years but this is the first time that I feel that I have to speak out,” Tadashi Tsuchida, professor of math at Skyline College, said at a press conference Thursday. “I was absolutely stunned that the leadership wouldn’t delay face-to-face classes by a couple of weeks. Our safety measures that we have are outdated in light of the omicron variant.”
District spokesperson Ana Pulido said in a statement the district has been preparing for a safe return, noting that some staff have remained on campus through the pandemic while others who have worked exclusively remote have been welcomed back in a phased approach. Pulido also said the district has implemented a number of safety measures from vaccination mandates to air filtration.
Students began returning to in-person classes Tuesday after the Board of Trustees opted against temporarily switching to remote learning until the current surge passed. But the district’s teachers union, AFT 1493, argues it’s not too late for administrators to implement their three demands.
As proposed, the union and supporting students are asking that the districts provide PCR and rapid antigen tests and adequate safety equipment on all three campuses for all who want them and to properly inform students of the level of safety N95 and KN95 provide compared to other nonsurgical or cloth masks.
Additionally, the group is demanding that the district provide portable air purifiers with high efficiency particulate air filters to every employee who requests one for on-campus use and to provide staff the option to work remotely until the county is no longer in the “high transmission” tier as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an interview before the press conference, Marianne Kaletzky, the union’s executive secretary, said Chancellor Michael Claire informed the union on Jan. 15 that the demands could not be fully met because they did not align with the board’s direction to reopen campuses as planned.
“I would really like to see continuity of education and that would be more easily fostered by allowing faculty to choose to take classes online,” Kaletzky said. We do want to be back in person as soon as possible but we want to make sure it’s the right thing for our students and the community as well.”
Kaletzky acknowledged the district has expanded access to medical-grade masks on campus and she and other faculty are pushing for the district to do more.
In adherence to a state and local mandate, the district also requires masking when indoors but faculty have requested the district implement its own mandate that would require masks after state and local requirements expire.
Over the summer, trustees voted in favor of implementing safety measures including a mandate that requires all students and district employees to be vaccinated if they visit campus for programming or services or do work on the district’s behalf. Those who qualify for medical or religious exemptions are required to test regularly.
The district also conducted an assessment of its ventilation and filtration system and found that the system was running up to standard in all buildings. Pulido noted air filters were provided in individual work spaces when needed.
“The San Mateo County Community College District’s top priority during this pandemic is safety. The district has been closely following the San Mateo County Health guidelines, and continues to mitigate risks and focus efforts to ensure safe spaces for students to learn, employees to work, and members of the community to visit,” Pulido said.
As for testing, Pulido said students and district employees can access tests at the College of San Mateo, a county-sponsored site that offers 1,000 tests per day by appointment only.
Additional on-site testing is available for those who are required to test per the district’s vaccination policy or employees who either are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have had confirmed close contact with someone with a positive case within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes while indoors.
Kaletzky noted that she was informed by Ray Hernandez, the district’s COVID-19 safety officer, that capacity for on-site testing is limited, requiring the district to prioritize those with religious or medical exemptions. In February, the district is slated to expand testing on each campus to all students and employees regardless of vaccination status or symptoms, she added.
Despite these measures, participants of Thursday’s rally say they still feel unsafe and fear exposing their loved ones to the virus as they learn about peers and faculty who’ve contracted the virus or have been in close contact and are now in isolation since the start of school.
Figures for how many students and faculty have contracted the virus this week have yet to be updated on the district’s COVID-19 Exposure Report website but at least 28 cases have been reported since the start of the year.
Dr. Rod Daus-Magbual, Daly City mayor and an adjunct ethnic studies professor at Skyline College, said he was afraid when returning for in-person classes, especially as a parent and diabetic. While acknowledging the challenges of navigating the pandemic, he called on the district to not “kick people off the boat” and to heed the union’s demands.
“Our lives are intersectional. We’re not just employees. We’re not just students, but we are caretakers for our children. We are caretakers for our elders and we must be flexible during these times of crisis,” Daus-Magbual said. “Unpredictable times call for unprecedented measures.”
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