An Open Letter to Admin on Conditions of Return to Campus

Members of the University community call for a safe return to in-person learning and increased transparency on the decision process.

By UChicago In This Together

Update: The text of this article has been updated to reflect the changing number of signatories.

Dear President Alivisatos, Provost Lee, and Executive Vice President Callow-Wright,

We write as members of the University united by a concern to protect the well-being of our entire community: faculty, staff, students, medical care providers, and South Side residents, as well as the families and households for whom we are responsible.

Many of us have, in recent weeks, appealed to the administration seeking clarification regarding the process and measures by which the conditions of our work, teaching, and learning in the face of surging COVID infection rates are being decided. We have received no response, and no acknowledgement of our profound and persistent concerns.

Our desire for engagement is driven by rates of infection and hospitalization for COVID that continue to break daily records, pushing the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) beyond its capacity. Adult and Pediatric ERs and ICUs are full, and medical providers are exhausted by the current burden of care. Amid this emergency, evidence regarding the frequency and complexity of long-term sequelae to even asymptomatic infection continues to tell us that a COVID infection is neither a mild nor a predictable medical event. Many of us, and our family members, have suffered infections and continue to struggle with long-term effects. Others among us understand that our medical histories mean those long-term effects are likely to be debilitating. Given all we know, and all we have yet to learn about the true risks for even the least vulnerable among us, the current plans seem irresponsible in both the short and long views.

We are also concerned about the University’s suggestion that students residing in dorms return to Hyde Park mere days before we are all expected to be back in classrooms. This means there is a window of several days where infected students are likely to still be asymptomatic and mixing with their peers, instructors, and staff. In other words, ideal conditions for a further rapid increase in infections. Under these conditions, “in person” will inevitably mean hybrid teaching and/or mass absences due to infection or exposure.

In light of the administration’s current plan for a resumption of in-person teaching on January 24, we offer three requests for immediate consideration and action:

1. First, we urge the administration to postpone all plans for in-person learning until at the earliest two weeks after the January 31 deadline for third vaccinations. February 14 is the earliest date by which those vaccinations will have reached their intended efficacy.

2. Second, we require a transparent disclosure of the public health metrics by which the administration would determine that in-person teaching is safe beyond February 14. This disclosure should include acknowledgement of the risks of long-term, chronic consequences even among some vaccinated people, as well as among some whose infections are asymptomatic. It should also include an acknowledgement of the unequal risks to individuals and to their household members whose particular situations place them in increased danger of serious or long-term consequences from a COVID infection. Any plan for a safe return to campus must address the specific health and safety needs outlined in recent appeals to the University administration, and include mandates for minimum thresholds for mask quality as defined by the Center of Disease Control (CDC), as well as air filtration in all University spaces.

3. Third, we call for an open forum for the discussion and appeal of the administration’s decisions regarding our shared conditions of work, teaching, and learning.

We consider these measures to be the minimal responsible and ethical response to a continuing public health emergency that threatens to leave many of us navigating not only the short-term stresses of a surge in infections, but the long-term suffering of chronic illness or disability. These measures are not exhaustive and complement ongoing calls for providing adequate personal protective equipment, additional mental health support services, and medical exemptions in cases of household exposure. Increased support, protections, and accommodations for staff required to work on site will be crucial.

The COVID situation is changing every day, and will, in all likelihood, continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We are all eager to return to a campus where physical distancing requirements do not interrupt learning and research. Given how much remains unknown, and yet given, too, how much alarming evidence has already become available, it makes common ethical sense to prioritize long-term concerns over short-term anxieties. Online learning has certainly been associated with mental health challenges, but the mental health costs of potential widespread chronic illness are incalculable. For this reason, it is imperative that the metrics by which safety of the community is measured should be decided in consultation with the community.

The current plan to return to in-person learning on January 24 places staff and faculty in unacceptably dangerous working conditions, places our students in harm’s way, and increases risk to the surrounding community. All of these issues place present burdens on our families whose potential long-term consequences are more than any of us should ask of each other.

The signatories of this letter can be read at the bottom of this document.

Sign on to this letter here.

Note: this letter was delivered to the offices of President Paul Alivisatos, Provost Ka Yee C. Lee, and Executive Vice President Katie Callow-Wright at 8 a.m. on January 20 and has amassed over 900 individual member signatures.

The authors of this letter are concerned members of the University community, including faculty, staff, and students; signatories include faculty, staff, students, alumni, medical care providers, and South Side residents.