YSU Faculty Union: Why Are We the Outlier in COVID Safety?

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – With just over two weeks until the fall semester begins, the faculty union at Youngstown State University organized a protest of the school’s COVID-19 policy for the upcoming semester.

Friday morning, more than 50 faculty members, students and community supporters gathered outside Tod Hall, home to most of the offices for YSU’s leadership. 

“How is it that every other university in Ohio, basically, has stricter safety measures in place than us? Why are we the outlier? Why are we deviating from CDC recommendations [to wear a mask indoors?]” said Mark Vopat, spokesman for the YSU chapter of the Ohio Education Association. “Why are we not following the lead of Cleveland State or Kent State or even Eastern Gateway [Community College], which is two blocks away?”

So far, Youngstown State is the only public university in Ohio to not specifically require students wear masks in classrooms or be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The first week of August, YSU announced its safety plan, including that it had updated the classroom safety and health protocols on its COVID-19 information page and that the campus would rely on ventilation, air filtration and surface cleaning to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. According to officials, the plan is based on CDC’s “Hierarchy of Controls” guidance from 2015, well before the start of the pandemic.

Earlier this week, YSU sent a survey to students and faculty to their university email accounts asking for information about vaccination status and wearing masks.

“With the start of the fall semester still more than two weeks away, Youngstown State University remains engaged in continuous review of our COVID-19 protocols and in making adjustments when necessary,” said a university spokesman in a statement Friday following The Business Journal’s request for comment about the protest. “The university is in the process of gathering more information and reviewing our protocols concerning face coverings. That process includes a survey seeking information from students and employees regarding vaccines and other campus protocols. The survey has received nearly 2,600 responses since being emailed less than three days ago.”

Class sizes was a common point brought up by faculty at the protest. In announcing the plans for the fall semester, YSU President Jim Tressel noted that the university’s plan would see the split between in-person and remote classes return to its pre-pandemic level, with 86% of classes have in-person components.

In many classrooms, there isn’t enough space for classes – many of which are at capacity, with upward of 40 students – to maintain social distancing.

“I’m not coming back because they say they increased the air exchanges. It’s idiotic,” said accounting professor Dave Law. “If I’m going to be in a [small] room for two hours teaching students without masks, there’s no way I’m going to do it.”

“I can’t come into a classroom with 30 students, 40 students without a strong mandate. I can’t enforce that. When it’s not the policy of the institution, it will create chaos in the classroom,” said Samuel Adu-Poku, an arts education professor, noting that he is immunocompromised and has grandkids too young to get vaccinated. “I want us to be able to do our work for the benefit of everybody and for the safety of our students.”

While YSU was making its COVID-19 plan, Vopat says the faculty union was part of an ad hoc committee that provide recommendations, but was not given a seat at the table when school officials met with local health departments Friday morning.

A Facebook post made by YSU director of occupational health and safety Julie Gentile that includes misinformation about COVID-19.

“We’re not at the table to hear what data they’re getting from the health department. We’re not at the table to hear how they come to their conclusions,” he said. “This is something that concerns the health and wellbeing of faculty, staff and students. When we ask to be part of a meeting with the health department, we’re told we can’t be in the room.”

Vopat and several protestors also pointed Julie Gentile’s role in developing the campus COVID-19 plan. Gentile, the university’s occupational health and safety director, made several posts about COVID-19 on Facebook that contain misinformation about the virus and vaccines. Many of the posts have since been deleted. 

“It does not instill confidence in the policies that come out of the administration. This isn’t all her,” the YSU-OEA spokesman said. “The fact that her personal opinions seem counter to accepted guidelines doesn’t make us feel confident in the policies coming out. She’s a key player that goes on in terms of health and occupational safety, but ultimately it’s the president on down that makes decisions.”

Pictured: Protestors picket outside Tod Hall at Youngstown State University over the school’s COVID-19 safety plan, which they call inadequate.

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