Western Carolina University is preparing for next month’s fall semester, which will have a mix of in-person classes and online instruction.
Western Carolina University has 15 different work groups and task forces finalizing the details of the return to school next month. Cory Causby is the associate vice chancellor of human resources.
“Speaking from an HR perspective, we kind of worked in lockstep with the university of North Carolina system and the North Carolina office of state human resources, as far as, uh, work and leave provisions and the guidance associated with that,” says Causby.
Kadence Otto is chair of the faculty senate, making her the voice of faculty during many of these discussions. She just started her term at the beginning of the month.
“I think the greatest concern is just their health and safety. They just don't want to be put into an environment where their health could be compromised,” says Otto.
Back on March 16, all Western employees started working remotely if possible.
“We're at about 35 percent for our workforce working in some capacity on site,” says Causby. “About 65 percent are continuing to work remotely and utilize telework to the greatest extent possible.”
Right now there are 316 cases of COVID-19 in Jackson County, where Western Carolina is located. There have been three deaths related to COVID-19. There has been community spread in the county since at least April.
In March, faculty and staff who were not able to work because of COVID were paid 100 percent. This went down to two-thirds pay in June and became one-third on July 1. Causby says this is in part because of federal COVID-19 funding (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) that kicked in at the beginning of May.
“So the reduction in the state paid administrative leave is really designed to kind of dovetail with that federal policy,” explains Causby.
Some can’t work remotely such as shuttle drivers, grounds keepers, and facilities workers. The school says that it is working to keep these employees safe - especially if they identify as high risk.
Ben Pendry is the chair of the staff senate. He’s also the executive director for advancement services.
“I know there won’t be a lot of face-to-face conversation but I know there will be a lot of mask-to-mask conversations because those will be required when we go back on campus,” says Pendry, who also started his term July 1.
Face coverings will be required in public spaces for students, faculty and staff. The university is also providing PPE.
Causby says the university has tried to work with staff who identify as high risk.
“We want the individual to feel comfortable with what we're providing, but we also want to make sure that they have meaningful employment. So it's a case-by-case basis,” says Causby.
Causby explains that WCU follows the CDC guidelines for who is “high risk.”
Western employees in a variety of positions reached out to BPR anonymously to say they are concerned about going back to work during the fall semester when students will be back on campus. One said: “I believe that it is morally and ethically wrong to hold face-to-face instruction this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Last month, the school held a faculty forum to discuss the concerns. As the faculty senate chair and an administrator at the business school, Otto says she sees the issue from both sides.
“I mean, if the campus has to shut down and nobody's taking classes and nobody's eating and living in the dorms, then we obviously can't continue to pay people. We can't. We don’t have the money. Then on the other hand, if we keep it going, then what is the risk threshold that we are basically embracing ?” asks Otto, who works in the MESH program.
However, Otto says she agrees with many faculty that it is unethical for the university to keep student’s housing and meal plan fees if they are not able to stay on campus for the whole semester.
"I think the faculty, widely, think that the fees need to be returned to the students," says Otto.
Right now, Western Carolina has not promised to give back those fees. Here are the current policies for the housing fees and dining fees. On Thursday, Western Carolina explained that while they are not obligated to give back fees and that they have not ruled out the possibility that fees will be returned. Here's the full policy.
Classes are set to go back on August 17. Students were notified at the end of June how their fall schedules will be taught. Before that announcement, faculty were asked to submit paperwork requesting special accommodations for their classes if they did not feel safe conducting face-to-face classes. This included a form signed by a licensed physician that identifies the faculty as high risk.
Right now, 16 percent of WCU's faculty have requested and been approved for special accommodations to teach through methods other than face-to-face instruction during the fall semester. About 2 percent of staff have requested and been approved for special work accommodations.
Some faculty and staff that BPR spoke with expressed concerns that they might be penalized at Western or at future jobs if they self-identify as high risk.
Causby says that all information about health is confidential within HR. “Confidentiality is a top priority,” he says.
Causby explains that policies across campus could still change because of the pandemic.
“I'd be speculating at this point, but I think it's safe to say that there is flexibility both at the system level, at the state level and at the university level to adjust policies as we move forward,” he says.
If any staff do contract COVID-19 while at work, Causby says, it could be covered as part of workers compensation.