GWU retreats on plan to resume in-person classes

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GWU Retreats on plan to resume in-person classes; to reconsider forcing faculty to accept risks of COVID-19

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GWU Cancels Plan To Resume In-Person Classes

WASHINGTON, D.C., (APRIL 23, 2020) -  On Sunday an article in the student newspaper of the George Washington University read: "Administrators Plan to Hold In-Person Classes This Fall, Website States."

It reported that "Officials plan to resume in-person classes and residential housing this fall, a University website states.  Administrators plan for students to return to campus for 'in-person instruction' . . ."

But, on Monday morning this article, with its important surprise announcement, did not appear on the newspaper's main web page along with other much less important news, including other news about the COVID epidemic.

There was also no mention of it in an email sent to all faculty members Monday morning about the University and the coronavirus epidemic.

Now, however, the language on the university's web site has been radically changed, signaling a significant retreat from the earlier stated position.

It now reads: "GW is currently reviewing plans for fall semester. We will provide updates on our instructional plans throughout the summer, beginning with a more detailed communication about our plans for operation by May 15. As we work to develop these plans, we are doing so with a commitment to both safety and care for our students, staff, and faculty."

The Safety Of The Faculty

It is interesting and ironic that the new announcement mentions the concern about the "safety" of the faculty, as well of students and staff, because the University had previous acknowledged that "Early information indicates some individuals are at a higher risk of getting very sick from this virus. This includes: Older adults and People who have serious chronic medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes and lung disease."

Yet, despite that acknowledgment, the University initially announced plans to return to classroom teaching where faculty and students would be exposed to a substantial risk of infection with the deadly and highly contagious coronavirus, and never even noted the risk, or suggested how it might try to reduce it with masks, distance classroom seating, etc., says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

Now the University has been reminded that persons, especially faculty, who are at "higher risk of getting very sick" because of various medical condition have legal rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and perhaps others.

They have also been warned that - despite workers compensation laws which usually preclude law suits for disabilities sustained while working - it might be possible to sue if a faculty member became infected with the virus while teaching in a classroom.

It was also brought to the administrator's attention that a major legal blog frequented by lawyers and law professors just posted the following: "Assuming the curve steadily flattens, I suspect one of the reasons businesses SUCH AS UNIVERSITIES still may be hesitant to start up in the Fall is potential liability should students living in dorms or ATTENDING CLASSES catch the virus and have bad outcomes. [emphasis added]

Unique Coronavirus Contagion Problems

Perhaps GWU administrators have also come to realize that classrooms seem to present unique coronavirus contagion problems which may not be shared by other segments of society which, by September, may well be returning to something like normal.

For example, retail stores can provide transparent plastic barriers between shoppers and cashiers, and customers can be required to wear masks during the very brief time they are in the store - an arrangement not really workable in a classroom.

Likewise, many businesses may operate nearly normally, and at low risk from the coronavirus by September, if most employees have private offices or their own cubicles, and closely and responsibly cooperate with each other to avoid any close contact when traveling to a restroom, water fountain, etc.

In-person classes are dangerous

In contrast, even with only every-third-seat and every-other-row in a typical classroom occupied, much larger numbers of students, who are not all necessarily responsive to the same social pressures and comradery as those in many typical office settings, will interact (in entering and exiting the classroom, walking to their seats, etc.) and put themselves - as well as the professor - at significant risk of becoming infected.

For all these reasons, Banzhaf has suggested that GWU do what other schools are considering, and experts are recommending: permit faculty who are a "higher risk of getting very sick" to continue teaching on-line as they have done for several weeks rather than return to the classroom, or permit them to take a furlough for the fall 2020 term.

Some major universities have gone even further, Banzhaf notes.

For example, at the University of Michigan, for faculty on furloughs, the "university premium portion of insured benefit plans (health, dental, long-term disability, life) will continue to be paid by the unit, and the employee contribution for health plan coverage will be waived during a furlough."

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