Dear Members of the City College Community,
I am writing on the verge of the new semester to talk to you about our reopening posture for the fall semester—I hope you'll forgive this rather long missive. We have, since March 2020, been struggling to balance two objectives on this campus—keeping our community safe and fulfilling our mission to our students and our society. Two things have changed over the past several months, and our plans for the fall semester incorporate those changes.
The first is that we now live in a society in which safe and effective vaccinations exist, are free, and are broadly and readily available. There is a great deal of misinformation about these vaccines, but hundreds of millions have taken them with almost no serious side effects. While long term studies of the vaccine have not taken place, given the risk of contracting the Corona virus it seems pretty clear that the best way to protect yourself is to be vaccinated. I received my shot as soon as I was eligible, and never for a moment regretted it. I urge all of you who have been reluctant to get the shot for some reason to do so as soon as you can.
The second change is that the Delta variant is now dominant in the country. The variant is more transmissible than the original strain of the virus, and may be deadlier. It also seems more likely to pose serious risks to younger people, including those too young to be vaccinated. Vaccinated people are more likely to carry and transmit the Delta variant than the original strain virus, and more seem to contract mild cases of the virus, but an extremely low percentage of vaccinated people contract serious cases of the Coronavirus of any strain, and fewer still ever require hospitalization.
What does this mean for our community and our work? First, it means that we have people in three different categories on campus.
- The first category contains people like me, who have been vaccinated and are not in any regular contact with people in some way unprotected from the virus. These people, like me, will be expected to come to work, albeit on a schedule that allows social distancing, and in situations where you will interact with a community that will be masked, will be vaccinated, or will have a very recent negative Covid-19 test. The combination of a screened community, social distancing and (most importantly) your own vaccination will combine to provide a substantial measure of safety.
- The second are people who are vaccinated but in regular contact with others who do not currently enjoy the protection of the vaccine. These would include people living with children under the age of 12 or others who are in some way immunocompromised, or people who are themselves immunocompromised in some way. For this group, we have an accommodation process in HR, and you may use it to receive permission to work from home. I'll say this again: If coming to work subjects you or someone close to you to a risk that cannot be alleviated by the vaccination, you may file an accommodation request and arrange a work from home agreement.
- The third category consists of people who have not yet been vaccinated. You will be required to submit weekly negative tests and will be moving in a community that is largely vaccinated and tested—but the stark truth is that when you come to campus, you will be subjecting yourself to danger. We now know that measures we undertook at the start of the pandemic— deep surface cleaning, plexiglass shields—offer comparatively little protection. The college has focused on making sure our areas are well ventilated, and have provided tours to unions to lay out the substantial measures we have taken to improve air handling and circulation. But the truth is that none of these measures provide anywhere near the level of safety that a vaccination does, particularly now that we know that vaccinated people can be asymptomatic transmitters of the virus.
When the pandemic started, the only way to protect our community was to depopulate the campus, and try every measure we could, including those that now appear not to have been effective. We moved to a remote profile, struggled to teach and provide services online, and as a community and as individuals, grappled with historically difficult conditions. Significant segments of our community— in facilities, in public safety and in several service offices—were required to come in under persistently dangerous circumstances and they responded heroically. Others of us remained at home, and worked diligently in an effort to provide an undiminished level of service to our students.
We are, at base, a service institution, working to advance a desperately important social mission under circumstances where that mission is more necessary than ever before. Over the course of the pandemic, two things have been true, and can be true at the same time. The first is that as a college we rose to the occasion, worked under dramatically difficult circumstances, made great personal sacrifices and were subject to almost unremitting anxiety. The second is that we were not, in that distance work profile, able to sustain the level of service necessary to meet the demands of our mission. I know this because, at the end of the day, I get the phone calls from parents trying to get someone, in an office, in a department, to answer the phone. We know this because of the myriad student complaints we have received, the number of students calling my office—and probably yours—to say that we have not met one or another obligation to them.
And so, it is time to recalibrate the appropriate balance between serving our mission and protecting our community. It is true that case rates around us are rising—but it is also true that if you've taken steps to vaccinate yourself, the risks associated with being exposed to the virus are vastly diminished. To use Dr. Fauci's terms, we are now facing a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and in that pandemic, our work requires that we be present in numbers that are consistent both with serving what will be a greatly reduced on campus population and providing for social distancing on this campus.
Our reopening plan and the work schedules arranged by supervisors across campus strike that balance. It was developed on the basis of one assumption that I'll reiterate here: We can implement a host of measures to protect our community—we'll be masked indoors, we've vastly improved ventilation, we will wash hands and social distance—but a vaccinated community is the best way to stop this virus and avoid its most serious effects, and our plan—including the option for accommodation and case by case work from home permissions—is calibrated accordingly. But we must begin the transition to a more regular and in person work environment, doing so in ways that rely on the science, recalibrate when necessary, and fully incorporate the advantages and protections of the vaccine.