Montclair State University’s reopening plan has come in for criticism from faculty and staff, who say it is too vague and does not provide sufficient information on health and safety procedures. 

“It’s a very vague document, it doesn’t answer a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of concerns about coming back to campus,” said Bill Sullivan, the executive vice president of the Council of New Jersey College Locals and the representative for AFT Local 1904, one of the unions representing faculty and staff at the university. 

Montclair State plans to reopen once New Jersey reaches stage three of the COVID-19 reopening, but with big changes, including limits on available dorm rooms, mask requirements for all students, staff and visitors, and reduced occupancy in spaces such as the library. 

Students can also expect to take most of their classes online, unless they are taking a course that specifically requires in-person instruction. 

New Jersey has not yet indicated a date for stage three. The university’s plan notes that it is based on the expectation that the state will be in stage three by the fall. 

On July 15, the university released a 65-page document outlining how it plans to reopen once the state begins the third stage. 

“Our success in achieving our goals for the fall 2020 semester will depend not just on this plan, but, to a much greater degree, will depend on the collective will of all the members of the university community to work together to meet our responsibilities for the education of our students, our responsibility to do all the things that will help keep each other safe, and our responsibility to be effective short-term stewards of the long-term asset of this important university whose future now rests in our hands,” Montclair State President Susan Cole said. 

Social distancing is one of the main concerns that faculty and staff have. Sullivan, also a professor of physical education and exercise science, questioned how social distancing would be maintained with the students on campus, which he estimated would be at about 40 percent of capacity. 

With so many unknowns with COVID, other concerns, Sullivan said, include the university’s lack of information on screening, responses when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, and safe procedures on sanitizing workstations. 

“We don’t know what this virus is about,” he said. 

In March, Montclair State faculty and staff criticized the university for continuing to stay open after area schools had closed, especially since a university administrator was the first Montclair resident to contract COVID-19. The university closed in late March and shifted classes to online.

Sullivan said the task force that came up with the restart plan consisted of administrators and managers, with the exception of one professor of public health and epidemiology. The task force, Sullivan said, opted for a reopening plan that centered around business rather than public health.

Sullivan said the university administration has been largely unresponsive to faculty and staff questions about the restart plan. Furthermore, he said that faculty, staff and students have all expressed fear about returning, and that some staff have felt pressured into coming back to campus. 

Mary Wallace, the president of Adjunct Local 6025, which represents adjunct faculty and staff at Montclair State, seconded Sullivan’s concerns about the plan. “As president of  Adjunct Local 6025 at Montclair, I am in full support of the position stated by full-time Vice President Dr. William Sullivan. I have the health and safety of the 1,200 adjuncts, and all the full-time professors and staff, as my first priority.”

Housing and fees

It is expected that 21,000 students, including 16,500 undergraduates, will be enrolling in the fall. Of that number, about 3,000 are freshmen. 

The university plans to cut down on the number of available rooms in on-campus housing. This includes turning double rooms into single rooms, eliminating three- and four-person rooms, and leaving some rooms vacant. Double rooms will be assigned only on request. 

According to guidance from the state Office of Higher Education, universities are encouraged to use single rooms as much as possible, and to designate a number of single rooms for quarantine usage. However, the guidance does not include any specific prohibition on double-occupied rooms. For shared bathrooms, students are urged not to leave personal items in the bathroom, and to use a shower caddy. 

New Jersey’s 14-day quarantine guidelines will apply to college students and employees coming from or returning from states with a high prevalence of COVID-19. “Students will be informed of this requirement in advance so that they can plan on arriving within 15-20 days before the starting date of classes,” the plan states. Students and employees must either self-quarantine for 14 days at home, or in designated areas of their assigned residence halls. “The university will establish quarantine spaces within the residence halls. Students with single rooms/single bathrooms will be able to quarantine in their assigned spaces. Residents in double-occupied rooms that need to quarantine will be provided a space away from other residents,” the plan says. 

University spokesman Joe Brennan said: “The student would move into his or her room, if it is a single, and isolate there for 14 days. If he or she will not be living in a single room, he/she would be assigned one of the single rooms we have set aside for quarantine,” university spokesman Joe Brennan said. “We will deliver meals to them in a contactless manner. We expect to house approximately 120 students from any of the 31 states on the New Jersey quarantine list this fall.” 

The university has frozen tuition and fees at $6,535 for a full-time in-state resident and $10,515 for full-time out-of-state  students for the 2020-2021 academic year, and also offered students a 12-percent discount on summer 2021 courses. 

“The board of trustees and I both feel strongly that, in the current very difficult economic environment, any increase in the costs of attendance would pose a hardship for many students,” Cole said. “Although the pandemic has caused significant reductions to our revenues and increases to our expenses, including a substantial cut in state funding, it would not be responsible to ask our students to cover a continuing shift of the cost of public higher education from the state to families.” 

There will be no in-person instruction after the Thanksgiving break, and the fall semester will end a week earlier than usual, on Dec. 14. 

“A very significant portion of the university’s instructional program for the fall must remain online, while we also provide on-campus opportunities for students who need the physical connection to the institution and for instruction in fields that require the facilities, equipment and instructional activities and methodologies that can only be provided on campus,” the restart plan says. 

The university will have 400 laptops available to loan to students who need them. 

State and national responses

Sullivan said that he will be teaching all of his courses online this semester, even though he would prefer to teach them in person. 

Many colleges and universities have decided to offer most, if not all, of their courses online this fall, except for those courses that require in-person instruction or access to on-campus facilities. The American Association of University Professors has issued its own guidance on how colleges and universities should reopen. Among those recommendations, the AAUP says that faculty and staff should be allowed to actively participate in any decision-making on reopening a campus.