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Faculty union at Stony Brook University appeals for universal mask mandates

Stony Brook University will require vaccinations for all

Stony Brook University will require vaccinations for all students once the FDA fully approves vaccines now dispensed under an emergency use authorization.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A union representing faculty and staff at Stony Brook University wants universal mask mandates in the fall, as concerns grow about rising infection rates from the delta variant and about the large number of commuter students who are not, as yet, required to get vaccinated.

While the university just announced that masks would be required inside campus buildings — including classrooms, libraries and common areas — as well as on shuttles and buses regardless of vaccination status between Aug. 3 and Sept. 7, only unvaccinated people would have to wear them after that.

Officials of the United University Professions’ Stony Brook University West Campus Chapter wrote in an open letter to the university president, "The current plans that SBU has publicly announced would send us into the fall semester with no mask mandate, no comprehensive vaccine mandate, no social distancing or de-densification in classrooms, full occupancy of the resident halls and classrooms, no contingency plan for faculty to teach online."

In another sign of rising urgency about a COVID resurgence, Long Island University announced Tuesday that it would not only mandate vaccinations for students, as other private universities have announced, but also for faculty and staff.

The Stony Brook University union letter also pushed for access to information about ventilation specifications in every building and room on campus, as well as for social distancing and a simpler process to request remote work assignments.

Lauren Sheprow, a university spokeswoman, said in response to the union letter, "We have embraced shared governance throughout the pandemic as we developed COVID plans. Faculty and staff, including members of bargaining units, have been active participants in the University’s COVID planning working groups."

The university will require vaccinations for all students once the FDA fully approves vaccines now dispensed under an emergency use authorization. Unvaccinated students and faculty must wear masks indoors, in line with state and county guidelines, and submit to weekly testing. All employees will be included in the pool for monthly surveillance testing.

However, UUP statewide president Frederick Kowal said full classrooms would make social distancing impossible and that faculty would have no way of knowing if unmasked students were actually vaccinated.

"Given the present circumstances, we can’t depend on the honor system right now. Universal masking would protect both the vaccinated and unvaccinated," he said.

While the SUNY campuses were instructed to follow state and local guidelines, they were also given the authority to go further, union officials said. Farmingdale State College, for example, will require masks of everyone in indoor academic settings such as classrooms, labs and libraries. Those without vaccinations must mask in extracurricular settings as well.

Spokeswoman Sheprow said Stony Brook University would continue to evaluate its masking policy as the situation evolved. "With this and other areas, we will continue to monitor, adapt and respond to changing data and guidance," she said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo just directed patient-facing employees at state-run hospitals — including Stony Brook University Hospital — and veterans homes to get vaccinated by Labor Day, with no option for weekly testing in lieu of vaccinations. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio just announced that proof of at least the first dose of a vaccination would be required for indoor activities such as dining, gyms and events.

Other SUNY schools, including SUNY Albany, Buffalo, Oswego and Purchase, announced new masking rules requiring everyone to mask indoors in academic settings and common areas and at large outdoor events, with unvaccinated students also required to mask outdoors. Oswego said it would reassess its policy on Sept. 24.

According to a press release from SUNY New Paltz, those vaccinated won’t have to mask, but faculty and teaching and graduate assistants can require masking of everyone in their classroom.

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