Four days before the fall semester began, longtime Long Island University English Professor Suzanne Nalbantian received final word she would not be allowed to teach her courses remotely despite being treated for a chronic lung condition her doctors felt would put her at high risk because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nalbantian, who began teaching at LIU Post in 1979, chose to take unpaid leave rather than enter a college classroom. Along with her salary, she said, she lost employer contributions to her health insurance and retirement fund.
"I have to choose between my life and my livelihood and I wasn’t going to take that risk," said Nalbantian, who said she is older than 65 and has won teaching and research awards as well as written or edited seven books over her four decades at LIU. "The university totally disregarded my request … when I heard that, I was devastated. I was all ready to teach the following Tuesday. I’d constructed my courses [to teach remotely] over the summer."
She is not alone. Long Island University, which instructs nearly 15,000 students with main campuses in Brooklyn and at LIU Post in Brookville, made a decision to reopen this semester with in-person instruction for nearly all its classes. LIU's reopening plan was approved by the state Department of Health, according to administration officials, with protocols of masks, social distancing and upgraded air quality for its classrooms, but the plan was still concerning to professors with health risks, advanced age or vulnerable family members, faculty members said.
Other Long Island colleges and universities chose to offer a mix of in-person, remote and hybrid classes, with many students studying remotely and dozens of professors granted accommodations to teach remotely. LIU offered accommodations as well, on a "case by case basis," said Joseph Schaefer, the university's chief administrative officer.
Schaefer, who oversaw the human resources department’s handling of faculty accommodation requests, said he could not discuss individual cases or overall numbers, but that the university consulted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on preexisting conditions that put people at high risk for serious COVID-19 disease and had allowed some faculty to teach remotely both on the graduate and undergraduate level.
About 14.2% of LIU’s student body opted to study remotely, using digital platforms such as Zoom to access classes, and "if all students in a particular class requested to be online, then that class would be online," Schaefer said. "Some faculty that were offered to teach remotely were asked to teach classes they were not originally assigned to, as part of making that accommodation for them.
"Certainly, the health and safety of our faculty, students and staff are of the utmost importance," he added.
Union: Requests were denied
However, requests by dozens of professors to teach remotely at LIU were turned down, according to John Lutz, who serves as the union president for the LIU Post Collegial Federation, the NYSUT-aligned union chapter representing full-time faculty at the LIU Post campus.
Lutz, who is an associate professor of English and chair of LIU Post’s department of English, Philosophy and Foreign Languages, said he was familiar only with the cases of faculty who came to him for assistance. Of those, he said, about a dozen chose to retire rather than enter a classroom, and about 20 were told to take leaves, including family leave, medical disability leave or unpaid leave.
Only a few could qualify for paid disability leave, which requires that workers be physically unable to perform their job, he said. Some went on family leave, which keeps insurance coverage in place, and some on unpaid leave, which means loss of income and employer contribution to health coverage. Other professors chose to continue teaching despite serious health concerns such as congestive heart failure and immunosuppressive treatments, rather than lose income, he said.
"We wanted remote teaching on request, particularly for those with these serious conditions," Lutz said. "It turns out that the administration was reluctant to grant these."
The union throughout the summer had urged the administration to offer more accommodations, contacted local officials for help, and submitted a letter from hundreds of LIU faculty, staff and students, to no avail, he said.
"Most of us were willing to take the risk, and most people are highly distressed at the prospect of colleagues with serious medical conditions forced to be in the classroom," Lutz said.
A scramble for adjuncts
Heather Parrott, an associate sociology professor and chair of the social sciences department at LIU Post, said departments like hers scrambled at the last minute to find adjuncts to teach the coursework of faculty who’d left. While many of the adjuncts are good teachers whose flexibility to meet the university’s needs were appreciated, she said, they couldn’t fully replicate the work of full-time professors experienced in teaching their courses and with a longtime commitment to the school.
"We are losing talented faculty," Parrott said, adding that she believed the administration was "behaving very heartlessly toward faculty. They are treating faculty as if they are expendable."
Schaefer said the university took accommodation requests seriously and that faculty and staff were part of the committee that developed its reopening plan. "The university has been able to successfully reopen the campus with having faculty for each of the classes offered, and we are happy with the way the university reopened in a safe manner," he said.
Professor Michael Soupios, in his 44th year teaching political science at LIU, said while the human resources department offered to discuss its decisions, he wasn’t aware of anyone able to reverse a denial. "Our contract offers limited options in pursuing grievances; we have very few cards. It’s very heavily slanted in the direction of the administration," he said, asserting the administration "took a 'my way or the highway' " approach.
Faculty departures left some students upset at the disruption. In the university’s digital game design program, a professor and two adjuncts resigned, Schaefer said, adding that the adjuncts were replaced by qualified instructors while a search to replace the professor is ongoing.
"Overall, I think upset is a bit of an understatement," said one student, Dylan Torres, 18, of Bellmore, whose family is moving to Mineola to be closer to the campus. "Many were distraught at the news, especially the seniors and upperclassmen."
Assistant history Professor Molly Tambor said her family members have existing health conditions that put them at risk if infected with COVID-19. Yet she continues to commute two hours each way via subway, train and bus between Manhattan and Brookville two days a week, she said.
"I’m incredibly anxious about this," she said, adding that she couldn’t afford the loss of income should she take family leave. "I wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach online so I could keep my family safe. That clearly was never an option."
Colleges and COVID-19
Here's how some other Long Island colleges and universities are handling medical accommodations for staff this fall semester:
- Hofstra University in Hempstead said in a statement that 10% of the full- and part-time faculty teaching this semester were granted medical accommodations, "when course content was appropriate for delivery online."
- At Molloy College in Rockville Centre, 33 of about 650 full- and part-time instructors were granted accommodations to work remotely. Only about a quarter of classes have any face-to-face instruction.
- Todd Wilson, a spokesman for Adelphi University in Garden City, said, "We do have some faculty working all remote this fall — and we absolutely did not force leaves. We try to provide options for people to best navigate their own concerns. And we have accommodated a variety of concerns, including instances where faculty did not personally have risk factors, but may live or provide care to someone who does.”