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U of M Students, Staff, Faculty: ‘Toothless’ COVID-19 Policies Don’t Protect Us

University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel just received an open letter with 500 signatures.

Students are "excited to be back" on the "humming" University of Minnesota campus, the Star Tribune reported Saturday.

Not all of 'em.

On Tuesday, the first day of the fall semester, a coalition calling itself UMN Students, Staff, and Faculty United for Health and Safety (SSFHUS) issued an open letter with 500+ signatures to U of M president Joan Gabel. As the COVID-19 delta variant surges, the signees expressed worries about packed classrooms and stadiums.

The letter airs concerns over the university's "toothless and flimsy" vaccine mandate, limited mask, social distancing, and testing mandates, and "inadequate" information surrounding ventilation. The signees are also seeking enhanced sick leave protections, more flexible work-from-home policies, clarity on mask enforcements, and increased funding for racial health equity efforts.

An accompanying press release calls out Gabel and the marching band for allegedly violating the U's indoor mask mandate at a recent event.

That's a lot! (You can read the whole letter here.)

This year around 80% of U of M classes will be taught in-person; last year 70% of classes started out online, the Strib reports, before shifting to 100% after Thanksgiving due to the, umm, raging pandemic. This 2021 freshman class of around 6,700 is the largest in 50+ years

“We need a true vaccine mandate, one that requires actual proof of vaccination or, for those who are not vaccinated, regular testing, along with stronger sanctions of those who refuse,” U of M biology professor Ruth Shaw says in a statement. Students and workers who don't comply with the current vax mandate, which requires students to "submit their vaccination information" and workers to "confirm their current vaccine status," do not face meaningful consequences, SSFHUS alleges. Its open letter demands that students and staff be required to submit "actual proof of vaccination."

Campus labor leaders are also peeved.

“I don’t feel safe on campus," Cherrene Horazuk, president of AFSCME 3800's U of M clerical workers union, says in a statement. "Classrooms will be filled to capacity
with no required physical distancing. The university has not announced plans for contact tracing or routine testing of students and employees. I am also nervous about poor ventilation in classrooms, offices and cubicles, dormitories, and other public spaces on campus."

Adds Pioneer Hall cook and Teamsters 320 member Mick Kelly: “I don’t want to be forced to report to work sick in the midst of a pandemic and risk spreading the virus to others.”

While we're piling on, let's hear what poli sci prof Mark Bell has to say.

“Given the inadequate safety measures the University is taking, it needs to provide students, staff, and faculty with more flexible working and learning arrangements," he adds via the press release. "My toddler is unvaccinated and we’ll have a vulnerable newborn in the house in a few weeks. My family is being unnecessarily put at risk."

U of M PR reps did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

As of September 2, 37% of students had reported their vax status to the U, with 98.5% claiming to be fully vaccinated; 76% of staff and faculty had reported their status, with 98% pledging full vaccination.

Update (6:37 p.m.): U of M spokesman Jake Ricker provided the following statement.

"The university is aware of the letter and is preparing a reply that details our wide ranging best-practice methods. We all face complex issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges with unclear solutions, even among those with expertise. We continue to welcome, consider, and appreciate all feedback on our approach to the fall semester as we build on our progress to date."

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