EIU Reopening???

It’s crazy that an institution of higher education cannot figure out how to manage adults coming and going safely and effectively given an entire summer to figure out exactly how to do it together.

Oh, wait . . . they did figure out how to do this. Denmark.

It’s not like we’re dealing with children that have parents that have belief systems that run directly counter to science and public health.

These are institutions that you have to submit applications, including personal health information regarding up-to-date, extensive immunization records, or you’re not allowed to enroll and attend class. 

Even though standards have decreased on both ends of the higher ed pipeline, it appears there are few to live up to in any manner, which is an origin of the fear here.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment, though.

Standards are falling because investments in education and the basic infrastructure that makes education successful have been falling nationally, statewide and locally. That basic infrastructure includes access to affordable and quality healthcare, access to quality and affordable housing, utilities, food, basic services, high-speed broadband internet, clean water (which is a growing issue in America), and so much more. 

Despite our nation’s lack of investment in these key ingredients for our future strength and national security, many individuals and families are investing in the future of the students that are moving to our community right now.

Imagine the courage it takes to send a foreign student to America under the Trump Administration. 

Why are they doing this now, as students are moving to our communities and while students, their families, friends and loved ones spend money on rent, utilities, endless amounts of food and supplies to fill the cabinets? We hope they grow to call our communities home for many years, so why is the union that represents the faculty’s best interests seeking to go to court to close our university? It’s sending the exact wrong message to every single one of those people, all our university employees and their families as well as the entire community.

I get it. COVID-19 is not only a public health concern. It’s a crisis that needs strong leaders, not those that use fear to guide their decisions. In my 20 years of public health experience, fear is not a motivator to improve public health outcomes. It doesn’t decrease our risk or reduce harm. The EIU-UPI communication reads of fear, and, likely, if their demands were met, EIU would never reopen for face-to-face instruction.

The faculty and employees at EIU are going to be at risk, as they are now. By opening the university campus that risk will increase. This risk is a reality every semester, it’s just more surreal in 2020.

However, the county health department, EIU administration and the guidelines set out by Governor Pritzker, are reasonable and effective at managing the virus if and when an outbreak were to happen near campus. The issue for me is the lack of transparency in location of outbreaks. We can and must do better so that the public can make the best choices. 

These very faculty are supposed to be able to manage their affairs at the highest level of their own expectations. They have those high expectations of the communities and leaders where they live, as well they should. 

Often, local leadership is lacking on even acknowledging their concerns. State representatives and state senators as well as their representatives in Washington, D.C. in Congress simply lack the voice, the principles or the spine it takes to stand up and support higher education. Ultimately, local media would not call local officials or their challengers on the ballot for quotes. 

Yet, EIU-UPI even states these leaders have done enough. Then what is the problem with reopening the university? Is the union just trying to be nice? That’s a mistake.

Here, these faculty just might feel isolated for most of this year. When they’ve had to go out in public they’ve witnessed what everyone else has witnessed. Often, it is a blatant disregard of social distancing by often self-righteous people not wearing face-masks while indoors in public spaces. 

Many local leaders and aspiring public officials don’t even make these basic public health guidelines a priority when communicating with the public. If they do it is done in a hushed manner so as to not offend, trigger or garner much attention, much as EIU-UPI has done here in trying to be nice. It’s contradictory and doesn’t help protect the public health.

With specific politicians, the messages are even counterproductive and border on sabotaging public health efforts. As I said before, messages about public health based in fear are counterproductive.

There’s a plethora of reasons for many of these faculty to feel isolated even before campus is open for the Fall 2020 semester. 

Imagine feeling politically isolated and feeling physically isolated due to poor public health choices of others.

That is the crux and the intersection of this basic problem.

The other issue is the longevity of these institutions of higher education, which just survived a budget standoff and crisis that lasted years, which in itself is unprecedented after decades of state budget cuts.

Many of the courses before COVID-19 already had online material, or were nearly completely online. The framework existed from which to build remote learning in higher education. 

It begs the question.

Why take this legal action against the university? 

It is a threat to the longevity of these institutions, the communities that call these universities and colleges home as well as to the futures of the students that we need to have call our communities home. 

I walked through EIU campus alone Thursday night, reminiscing where an empty quad now sits which was once filled for the FUND EIU rally years ago. That is the inspiration for what I write today.

Few want to make others feel unsafe, least of all college administration, nor these county boards of health and certainly not me. Faculty have few natural allies and haven’t fostered relationships with others that are making public messages. Certainly, no new funds or resources are going to be on the way any time soon as legislators in both Springfield and D.C are all on recess. 

For an organization to not consider bond payments, to not consider the longevity of institutions where faculty work and they represent, to not consider the pink slips that will be going out to fellow employees, and not just at the university, is beyond my comprehension. And, because of what specific reason? 

To forget our most recent histories and struggles, like FUND EIU and the budget crisis that nearly had the doors shuttered seems shortsighted at the least.

Is it just because the faculty simply do not want to ever teach in person in 2020?

Is that the honest position of these unions and why they have not uttered those exact words because it sounds exactly as it is?

They are scared, isolated and don’t feel protected. That’s why they don’t want to see students on campus in lecture halls in 2020. This isn’t Denmark. They don’t have trust in the Trump Administration, the county health department or the community to follow public health guidelines. 

The most obstructive part anyone can play is a critic with no ideas, no alternatives other than option A, which in this case is to open as planned.

We don’t have to abide by concrete that was poured prior to a summer of inefficient and ineffective national and local leadership, funding, resources and labor on this issue.

What do we do in the real world? We tear that concrete right out of the ground, make a new mix, pour it, level it and make sure at every step we use better and more efficient control mechanisms. What we don’t do is chart a new road or route to where we were going.

What can we utilize from the existing route to make the new road safer?

We already have the answers before us, and higher education has been running them for decades. It’s called cohorts. Grad programs have grad students in cohorts. It helps with cohesion. 

It can help with COVID-19 tracking and managing outbreaks if and when they happen on campus. Cohorts were successful in Denmark public schools, which opened in April.

Cohorts are a bit more difficult to do with undergrad coursework. Let’s problem solve it instead of obstruct it.

Rescheduling will take some time, but we could do it in a safe, efficient and effective once the cohorts are built. Of course, there are going to be outliers that can’t be managed through a block cohort scheduling system. Take them out of it. 

Anyone in general studies is in a cohort. All the rest are fairly easy to pinpoint on their journey. How many courses can a person take during a semester? Maybe place further course limitations on students for a semester or two, allowing for some exceptions. 

We can do this. It’s if we have the will and the mental power to see it through to its safer conclusion.

Denmark also has been successful because they had positive, long-term working relationships between their unions, administration and parent-student organizations. That might be something for the faculty unions, county health departments and communities to invest in for our future.

Why on earth would anyone listen to me?

I worked in public health with the Indiana State Department of Health, Marion County Health Department (largest in the state of Indiana) for over 5 years working with infectious disease on prevention and treatment efforts. 

We worked directly with organizations, individuals, communities, schools, colleges, developing relationships and communication that people could trust. 

Unfortunately, Governor Pence, now Vice President, took over the state and gutted a lot of those programs and burned a lot of the infrastructure that so many people had built over years. It’s understandable why the faculty would give pause to the leadership that is lacking nationally on these pandemic issues.

It takes strong leaders to stand up and not lead from fear. 

We can move through this. We need only the will and resources to do it. 

I believe many of those resources exist here today, and we deserve and need more. We should demand better. We should demand more. Community leaders, legislative representatives and candidates should be on the front lines of those fights and public conversations.

If those voices were in a cacophony, action would be more likely, and organizations like EIU-UPI wouldn’t feel so isolated.

Demand better or you receive less. No wonder rural communities are struggling.

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