United Academics of the University of New Mexico (UA-UNM) and the UNM administration came to an agreement on Wednesday, Aug. 19 — two days after the start of the fall 2020 semester – about in-person and remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UA-UNM released documents outlining safety protocols and procedures the union negotiated with the administration, including a joint communication statement sent to UNM faculty signed by Provost James Paul Holloway and memorandums of understanding, both of which can be found on the union’s website.

The fall semester is now starting its second week with either hybrid or fully online classes and a total of 40 people affiliated with the Albuquerque main campus, UNM Athletics and UNM Health Sciences Center having tested positive for COVID-19.

The joint communication statement starts by recognizing “how difficult and stressful it has been to find ways to provide the best educational experience possible for students while ensuring the health and safety of all instructors in an ever-changing world dominated by COVID-19.”

The document continues to list various safety guidelines for faculty and students alike, including the changing of facilities to optimize hygiene with increased sanitation and disinfection, posted reminders of mask wearing, a tailored directional flow so as to optimize social distancing and codifying the limitations of holding in-person or hybrid classes.

The administration’s hiring of contact tracers follows, stating UNM is in the process of hiring five contact tracers from the Department of Health assigned to main campus to interview and test those who have been in close proximity to individuals who have tested positive. The document concludes with providing information on mental health resources so as to build a “culture of mutual protection” amidst the pandemic.  

UA-UNM consists of several committees, among which is a bargaining group tasked with negotiating general faculty and union rights. A specialized committee consisting of Cristyn Elder, Lee Montgomery and Lucio Lanucara with Richelle Fiore — the national union representative from the American Federation of Teachers — formed within the bargaining group to negotiate working conditions amidst the pandemic upon its rise earlier in the year.

According to Elder, an associate professor of rhetoric and writing, the joint communication was meant to provide the most significant information relating to the pandemic to the faculty.

“The joint communication distilled for faculty, and therefore the larger UNM community, what was most important to know at a glance,” Elder said.

Though the administration has provided resources about the University’s role in the pandemic such as “Bring Back the Pack,” Elder and the UA-UNM team sought to provide a more succinct and simple form of communication through the documents to guide the campus’ direction this semester.

For the members of UA-UNM’s COVID-19 bargaining group, the cooperation of both invested parties was critical to coming to an agreement about the language and considerations that were used.

“We were able to really offer some insights that I don’t think (the administration) would have had if they hadn’t just sat down across the table from us,” Montgomery, an associate professor of art, said in an interview with KUNM on Sunday.

In response to a question about the multitude of instances of individuals publicly refusing to wear a mask across the country, Montgomery said that “a faculty member shouldn’t have to deal with someone coming into their classroom with an agenda like that.”

An in-person class will be dismissed if a student refusing to wear a mask doesn’t leave the room and “may result in the student being dropped from the class,” according to the joint communication document.

UA-UNM and the administration reached the agreement just as numerous colleges and universities across the United States have been plagued by coronavirus outbreaks forcing them to shift to online instruction only.

Schools like the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have reverted to online classes following a growing outbreak and clusters of infections, respectively, according to the New York TImes.

Other universities, like Smith College in Massachusetts, announced plans for an entirely online 2020 earlier this month prior to the school year. Several have opted for a delay in the semester, like Winthrop University and the University of California, Merced.

The Daily Lobo reported earlier this month that the UNM School of Law’s formal request for a delay in the semester was denied. The request followed two individuals affiliated with the law school testing positive.

The documents released provide guidance as the new semester starts and the year trudges into fall and winter. However, there have been growing concerns as to how the pandemic will take shape in the colder seasons, when flu viruses are most common.

Negotiations between UA-UNM’s COVID-19 bargaining group and the administration began in June, and the next meeting will take place on Aug. 31 when both pandemic-related and general negotiations will continue as students begin registering for the winter and spring semesters.

“Decisions for winter and spring, it seems to me, would have to be made soon, because students are going to start registering for the new semester,” Elder said.

Gabriel Biadora is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora