FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The University of Arkansas announced its plans to bring back students in the fall. A local union supporting UA employees questioned whether the plan reflected enough safeguards for students and faculty.
“Chancellor Joe Steinmetz deserves praise for his leadership during the pandemic by swiftly closing campus, avoiding furloughs and lay-offs, and preserving the UA’s high standards for education and research,” read the first line of a statement released by the Local 965 group. “However, the UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965 finds the plan released today, ‘Return to Campus,’ does little to clarify a confusing and potentially dangerous situation for the Fall 2020 semester.”
The UofA released its three-phase plan earlier this week. The 24-page plan that was made public included non-specific verbiage on what the university will do in many areas, including housing and widespread COVID-19 testing first mentioned as a needed prerequisite by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R).
Bret Schulte is the president of the Local 965 chapter and an associate professor at the university. He said the plan’s language isn’t direct.
“The plan that was released this week lacked specifics,” Schulte said. “We understand there’s a lot of pressure to reopen. We understand the financial pressure, the political pressure.”
Some concerns laid out by the group include housing density, dining hall procedures, staff requirements and faculty guidelines.
“The density of on-campus housing as far as we know is going to stay the same,” Schulte said. “The requirement for freshmen to live on campus is going to be maintained.”
In an email, university spokesperson Mark Rushing dismissed many of the group’s stated claims by including details not outlined in the plan made public earlier in the week:
“University Housing is offering more single-occupancy rooms to students this year than previously,” Rushing said. “We are also reserving some single-occupancy rooms for the potential need to isolate those who may at some point test positive for the virus.”
Rushing also refuted qualms about freshman housing and dining halls. Students will have reduced seating and to-go options available in the fall, he said.
“We are waiving the policy requirement for new freshmen to live on campus for the 2020-21 academic term,” Rushing said. “New freshmen who want to live off-campus for the 2020-2021 academic term because of the pandemic can complete a Freshmen Exemption Request located on the University Housing website.”
University economist Mervin Jebaraj said the city needs students back in some fashion to boost commerce on the back end of the initial COVID-19 wave.
“Close to a third of the population of the entire city is important for commerce,” Jebaraj said. “There’s a lot of businesses that depend on the student population and their spending.”
Schulte said he understands both sides to the issue and simply wants there to be more-concrete steps taken for the safety of students and faculty. He said he wants the university’s comments in response to the Local 965 to be stated publically.
“The Local 965 appreciates the details added to the plan after its release,” Schulte said in a statement after his initial interview. “We believe that this type of transparency and specificity will benefit the university staff, faculty and students as we work together to re-open the University of Arkansas.”