Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Can Faculty Be Forced Back on Campus?, by Arlene S. Kanter (Syracuse):
Until an effective vaccine is widely available, it is impossible for any college to be completely safe from Covid-19. Yet many institutions are planning to resume residential life in August. Much has been written about protecting students, but we also need to ask: If faculty members decide that it is too risky to return to campus, do they have the right to work from home?
I come to this question as a law professor from the field of disability-rights law. The Disability Rights Movement’s slogan, “Nothing About Us Without Us” reminds us that decisions should be made by the people most directly affected by them. But even if faculty members are involved in decision making, what do “we” want? Some will want to work from home; others will prefer to return to campus. What is less clear is whether faculty members who are concerned about the risks of returning to campus have the right to teach remotely from home. Several Covid-related regulations and federal and state laws can help guide us.
If a college refuses a faculty member’s request to work from home, the faculty member has the option of taking a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. In addition, Congress recently passed the U.S. Family First Coronavirus Response Act. This law supplements the FMLA by providing eligible employees up to two weeks of paid sick leave or 10 additional weeks of family and medical leave for reasons related to Covid-19. The law, however, applies only to employers with fewer than 500 employees, so many larger universities will be exempt.
Even if colleges are not compelled by legal reasons to allow faculty members to work from home this fall, they should allow it because it is the right thing to do. My own dean recently announced his support for allowing faculty members to choose to teach from home, without requiring any supporting documentation. This is the approach that all institutions should take. The pandemic has given us the chance to rethink how we can make our colleges more accessible and inclusive. By supporting flexible teaching arrangements and giving faculty members the option of working from home, colleges will be showing their commitment to a diverse and healthy college community.