Inherent Risk in Reopening
OSU reopened campuses for the fall semester on August 25, 2020. The main transition task force (formerly the post-pandemic task force), composed almost entirely of senior administration, presented the risks of contracting COVID-19 as manageable with proper distancing, masking, and sanitation. They noted some “uncertainty” in the situation and suggested that if outbreaks occur, it will be because students fail to adhere to guidelines. Faculty and staff have been advised to encourage good behavior.
In reopening despite COVID-19, OSU has not acknowledged its responsibility, as a public institution, to the public health. Campuses are inherently congregating spaces, and universities are compact and active communities. The very act of bringing thousands of people back to OSU to work, study, and live in the same limited physical region puts lives and long-term health at unnecessary risk. Moreover, as the Midwest AAUP coalition (among many others) has concluded, that risk has radiating effects out to the community as well. Because Columbus was a hot spot for COVID-19 over the summer, Columbus City Schools Superintendent Talisa Dixon made the decision on July 28th to change course and start the school year fully online: “Ohio’s Public Health Advisory System currently rates Franklin County at Level 3, Red, indicating very high exposure and spread of COVID-19. The number of confirmed cases is rapidly increasing, and the level of risk is high even with strict health and safety protocols in place for our schools.” See the latest rates for Franklin County on the Ohio Department of Health dashboard.
If OSU decides to change course after the start of the semester, there will be significant economic and other consequences for students and their families. Students will incur unnecessary moving expenses and face possible disputes about refunds. Their studies will be disrupted, and they will be a potential danger to their communities when they return home. Moreover, COVID-19 is a virus that researchers are discovering affects all age groups. Young adults themselves potentially face dire health consequences. A much safer course of action would have been to begin fall semester all online.
Mandatory Buckeye Pledge / Together as Buckeyes Pledge
OSU football players began workouts in early June 2020. These students were first required to sign a Buckeye Pledge that raised red flags for some legal experts because of its resemblance to a liability waiver. Athletic practices were suspended for multiple sports a month later due to an undisclosed number of infections of COVID-19, and then resumed six days later. On August 23, 2020, college sports journalist Billy Witz reported that Dr. Curt Daniels, director of sports cardiology at Ohio State, found myocarditis—heart inflammation that can cause cardiac arrest in strenuous circumstances—in almost 15% of athletes who had recovered from the virus, most of whom had shown little to no symptoms. OSU has declined to publish any testing data on its athletes, citing privacy laws, though "those prohibit only the disclosure of personally identifiable information."
Over the summer, OSU also asked employees and students at large to sign a pledge, the Together as Buckeyes Pledge. This document, required in conjunction with video conduct training, in part reads:
"I know that by coming onto campus to engage in work or education-related activities that I may be exposed to COVID-19. I also understand that despite all reasonable efforts by the university, I can still contract COVID-19. . . .
I understand that COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus and it is possible to develop and contract the COVID-19 disease even if I follow all of the safety recommendations of the university and comply with the Pledge. I understand that even though the university is following the guidelines issued by the CDC and other experts to reduce the spread of infection, a COVID-19 free environment can never be guaranteed."
The Together as Buckeyes Pledge, like the Buckeye Pledge, asks the signatory to accept all risk for possible COVID-19 illness. Moreover, it is effectively mandatory: “Faculty or staff members who decide not to sign the pledge will be reminded by their dean or manager, who will document the decision.” President Kristina M. Johnson reasserted the requirement in an email on August 11, 2020 to the entire OSU community: "As shared previously, all students, faculty and staff are required to complete an online training course and the Together as Buckeyes Pledge. The 10-minute training is available through BuckeyeLearn; the pledge must be signed upon completion of the training."
Amending the Pledge
In a widely circulated article in the Los Angeles Times, Georgetown University Law Professor Heidi Li Feldman writes:
"Colleges have aligned themselves with big-business lobbies seeking wholesale federal immunity from COVID-19-related civil liability. For the schools, assumption of risk defenses are the natural extension of this strategy, the private law alternative to legislatively created immunity. . . .
Beyond rejecting explicit waivers, any employee or student who plans to be on a campus this fall should also inform supervisors, deans, presidents, and in-house counsel in writing that showing up does not imply any release of the institution’s legal responsibility to take reasonable measures against causing illness, including COVID-19."
Closer to home, in an article discussing the safety pledges at Ohio universities, the Columbus Dispatch notes OSU’s pledge as especially controversial for its seeming liability implications. As it also reports, on August 7, 2020, OSU administrators announced an adjustment of the “Together as Buckeyes” pledge. This change, however, addressed none of the concerns about the pledge’s shifting of responsibility for potential harm onto employees and students. Instead, OSU administration was responding to criticism that the pledge required signatories to make statements about their personal beliefs.
If OSU could adjust its pledge once in response to widespread concerns, it could do so again. See our open letter in the Lantern calling on the administration to revise the pledge further to clarify that it is not a waiver of legal rights or an assumption of risk.
Limited Choice of Whether to Return to In-Person Teaching and Other Work
On July 2, 2020, we held a true town hall on the issue of campus reopening so that OSU faculty, staff, and instructional graduate students had an opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns. (While OSU leaders have hosted several “town halls,” these events have in reality been presentational webinars on already-made decisions and have allowed for only brief, curated question periods.) From this meeting, and from concerns we have heard since then, it has become clear that some faculty and instructional staff have been offered choice about their mode of instruction this fall, while others have not. Many faculty, staff, and instructional graduate students feel required to teach in person and that they otherwise face a penalty of disciplinary action, salary reduction, or job loss, even when they would prefer to teach remotely, whether for pedagogical reasons or because of their concerns for personal or public health during a pandemic.
We find this lack of choice directly contradictory to the concept of a “Buckeye Nation” and the claim that we are “Together as Buckeyes.” OSU leaders have insisted on their priority of attention to the health and safety of all, but employees with the least say in the conditions of their work—adjunct faculty, graduate students, and some instructional and other staff—are being left behind. This constitutes a discrimination against certain categories of employees and an inequity of risk. As a community of faculty, staff, and students who care for each other, we deserve better from our university leaders. All members of our Buckeye community should have a genuine choice of whether to do work in person or remotely.