In the latest installment of communicating quarterly with the UCI community, Chancellor Howard Gillman hosted a town hall on Wednesday – the second of 2021. Eleven other campus leaders also participated, with most of the two-hour virtual event spent addressing 55 pre-submitted questions plus additional ones from the live audience. The topics fell into five main categories: remote and hybrid work, campus safety, the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, instructional delivery, and employee pay and layoffs.
“We want to get together and back in person,” Gillman said. “The goal to get from here to there is to build a bridge over the next few months. We want to respond as best we can to issues as we transition from where we are now to the fall.”
Remote and hybrid work
The town hall kicked off with the timeline for the reentry to working on campus, beginning July 1 and transitioning through Sept. 30. Leadership shared that this is a phased approach with the option of hybrid and remote work. Decisions will be based on the needs of the unit, with supervisors in charge of determining who is eligible.
It was emphasized that employees should work with their supervisors during this phase to learn what work schedule is best for the unit and also for the employee. From now until the end of August, units should work together to prepare a plan to fully implement by the end of September. The Future of Work website is a resource and is regularly updated. To help with the transition, courses will be offered to leaders, and there will be courses to help employees prepare for the return to on-site work.
“It will be a new day when we come back,” said Ramona Agrela, associate chancellor and chief human resources executive. “Some work can be done effectively partially or fully remote, creating innovative workforce models while maintaining university standards.”
Contact tracing, testing and booster vaccinations are likely to be part of UCI for the foreseeable future.
“We have done a tremendous job this entire year prioritizing the health and safety of our entire workforce and UCI community,” Gillman said. “We will continue to do so carefully and deliberately during the next several months as we enter a more in-person environment. People should feel confident that their health and well-being are prioritized.”
Campus public health policies will continue to be driven by county, Cal/OSHA and state guidelines. “As we get information over the next months, we are prepared to make adjustments to our plans,” Gillman said. “As the science evolves, we will react to the science, as we have.”
The panel noted cultural shifts that have occurred during the past year, notably the wearing of masks as more of a societal norm.
“Not coming to work sick is another cultural shift,” noted David Souleles, director of UCI’s COVID-19 response team. “It’s better for everyone, including yourself, that when you’re sick, you take time to care for yourself.”
The COVID-19 vaccine mandate
It’s highly probable that the University of California will require all students, staff and faculty to receive the COVID-19 vaccine prior to returning to campus in the fall. Many issues still need to be decided, such as possible medical exemptions. The final UC vaccine policy is anticipated sometime this summer. A system for employees to upload their proof of vaccination is being developed, with an expected rollout in the next few weeks.
“The most important thing we can do as a community is get vaccinated,” Souleles said. “That is our ticket to a brighter day and a better future. It allows you the security of knowing that you’re protected. It protects you from serious illness, stops the chain of infections and keeps the campus safe.”
Everyone in the UCI community is invited to visit the UCI Forward website for help in getting a vaccine. The panel noted that achieving a 100 percent vaccination rate is unlikely. However, the campus can still reach herd immunity.
“If we have 80, 85 or 90 percent coverage, it protects those who can’t get vaccinated because of medical or other reasons. The vaccinated will stop transmission around them so that the unvaccinateds’ chances of getting COVID become very low,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, director of UCI’s Program in Public Health and founding dean of the campus’s proposed School of Population Health.
The university will still have daily symptom checks and asymptomatic testing available – strategies that worked well this past year in keeping campus numbers very low compared to the outside community.
Students are expected to prepare for in-person instruction. Jeff Barrett, chair of UCI’s Academic Senate, shared that he’s looking forward to a fall where most activities are in person.
“It feels like we’re at a turning point; the faculty are excited to be back on campus,” he said. “We have two years of students who have had no in-person instruction and one year of students who have only had some. We need to transition these students back in.”
The Academic Senate has approved continued instructional flexibility for the fall quarter. “It’s very much a continuing conversation among deans, the senate, department chairs and the provost’s office,” said Hal Stern, provost and executive vice chancellor.
Employee pay and layoffs
There are no plans for furloughs or COVID-19-related layoffs, as the university moves back to pre-pandemic business practices for handling such issues. Coronavirus-related leaves with sunset dates this year do not have any extensions. Additionally, faculty and employees can expect a 3 percent general pay increase later this year, with plans to return to the merit program next year. The Position Management Review Committee will continue to review new positions.
“We are one of the strongest campuses in the UC system,” said Ron Cortez, UCI vice chancellor and chief financial officer. “Once all expenses due to COVID mitigation are taken care of, we can really understand what the budget situation is. We think of next year as a bit of a transition year.”
Other takeaways from Wednesday’s town hall include:
- Faculty housing is a priority, and work is being done to address this.
- Staff housing is being addressed, with more information to come later this year.
- Student housing is open; students should access the housing portal for details.
- Information about the Accellion data breach is available on the UC webpage.
- Staff Assembly invites employees to visit its website to see the latest updates and events.
- Student convocation will be in person.
- Student employees are welcome to return if that’s what their unit needs, but they must still follow protocols.
- Facilities, air handling, HVAC systems and air filters have all been prepared for safe reentry, and information is available on the Environmental Health & Safety website.
- There are no plans to require vaccinations for campus visitors.
- Parking will reestablish over the summer and address the hybrid workforce.
- Staff awards will be virtual again.
- There is no word yet on whether flu vaccinations will again be required.
Gillman concluded the event by saying: “I’m grateful we’re on this side of [the crisis] rather than the other side, and I really do see a brilliant future ahead. Thank you again for all your work, and hopefully, we will see you in person before too long.”