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University of Pittsburgh library workers are concerned about health as COVID-19 cases rise

While the University of Pittsburgh addresses the rise in cases of coronavirus among students after Halloween weekend, the administration ordered students to shelter in place before Thanksgiving break, with a few exceptions.

While the campus has been largely closed, one place students can come and go is the Hillman Library. Some library employees worry that that puts them at risk as cases rise both at the university and in Allegheny County as a whole.

Five library employees questioned Hillman's decision to keep the doors open, speaking to PublicSource anonymously for fear of losing their jobs or retaliation from the university.

But the university maintains that it is taking steps to protect employees and students.

"Many precautions are being taken to support the health and safety of our students, staff, and faculty while providing essential library services and study spaces to support students in their academic success," the spokesperson said. from Kevin Zwick College in an email. .

Pitt's decision to keep the five-story library open represents a question faced by universities across the country in the time of COVID-19: How can campuses balance the basic academic needs while protecting the health of students and staff?

Pitt's COVID Status

When Pitt students first arrived on campus this fall, the campus described three levels of risk that reflected similar approaches by the State. Each level of risk would affect the access and activities of the university community, depending on the severity of the virus. In October, the campus loosened some restrictions on student activities, but then Halloween-related gatherings increased the number of COVID-19 cases.

"There have been at least 40 confirmed cases since Friday, which we suspect are linked to gatherings that took place over Halloween weekend," a email Electronic of the University stated on November 8. Allegheny County saw a similar spike, repeatedly breaking its record for daily COVID-19 cases before announcing a countywide stay-at-home notice on Wednesday.

Originally, the shelter in order for students was planned to start on November 12, but it was changed four days. According to the order, the Students can still leave their rooms or apartments to attend classes, labs, exercise, or study at places like the Hillman Library. The library's capacity is limited to 800 people at a time, according to officials and the library system plan. university libraries.

The university has not seen a case of COVID-19 related to learning on campus, Zwick said in an email.

" There has been no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in any of Pitt's academic settings," he said.

November 20 , the students left campus for the s holidays and will learn remotely to end the semester, although the library will remain open for patrons until mid-December. Earlier this month, the campus saw an increase of 73 student cases and a higher average number of positive cases. On Tuesday, the University reported that 50 students had tested positive and that 99 students were in isolation. Four new cases of teachers or staff members were reported.

Some university employees expressed concern about the order of the university to shelter in place, specifically because the high level of risk gives students the opportunity to use the libraries as a study room .

As the pandemic worsens, libraries for both students and the general public are exploring how to offer services in person while taking the necessary precautions to slow the spread of the virus and ensure that staff and users are safe. Some rely more on online resources or limit access at locations. Libraries through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh recently suspended in-person services after an increase in local cases. At Carnegie Mellon University, which reported 27 new positive cases from November 10-16, people should reserve places in the library in advance.

Pitt libraries have reduced capacity and shorter hours . The Hillman Library is open from 10 a.m. at 10 p.m., according to Zwick. Stationed at the entrance to the ground floor are security guards who verify identification and monitor the flow of students, staff and teachers entering, without allowing the entry of more than 800 people at the same time, according to to the university library system plan. Temperatures are monitored and the library staff complete health checks every day. Other precautions include modified hours so staff can work before the library opens and not enter library shelves while the facility is open to the public, he said.

Within the walls of the library, directional stickers, Plexiglas, and signs are posted to enforce university rules.

People are required to keep their masks and the university hired additional staff and students to walk around the library to make sure that students kept their masks and followed the physical distance rules, Zwick said. Those who fail to do so are asked to follow established guidelines and reported to Student Conduct. Custodial staff clean buildings and employees received wipes, masks and a face shield, according to an employee.

Employees also use staggered hours, although some may work from home and others come during the week.

Some employees said that there were times when a student removed a mask or kept it down, and on occasions students reported failures in security protocols.

"Sometimes there are students who come up and report what they see," said a library employee. "That's comforting, but it also takes a person."

The university's plan was a combined effort between medical experts and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety to adapt library environments and make them as safe as possible while continuing to serve to the students, Zwick said.

We maintain an open dialogue with our faculty, staff, and students and take all concerns seriously, such as those raised by our librarians and library staff ", said.

Students will continue the semester remotely after Thanksgiving break, although the Hillman Library will remain open until mid-December. (Photo by Jay Manning / PublicSource)

Under the elevated risk level, 113 library workers are on site to "provide critical and essential services to the public and maintain critical operations of the library ", according to the plan of the university library system . There are 32 library employees who work at the Hillman Library, although not all at the same time, Zwick noted.

Library employees considered front-line and needed to maintain library operations are also some of the lowest paid, employees said. The university library system had the lowest average salary by department level with $ 31,254, according to to the annual salary report for fiscal year 2019.

Although the library space can offer students the opportunity to experience university life, a library employee commented that while study spaces are important to the community, so is the mental health of who work on campus. Anxiety and stress increased when library employees returned to campus, a library employee said, adding that some workers decided to take time off as a result.

In March, the university library system, including Hillman, moved from in-person services to online services when universities across the country closed campuses in response to the coronavirus.

Employees said the university developed the online infrastructure to offer e-books, provide chat help, search electronic databases, and other services to help the campus community in ways that were online.

Sidewalk services are available at two of the established risk levels elevated and monitored according to the spokesperson.

Libraries across the country

At the national level, academic libraries are trying to balance service to university communities and staff safety, said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg , Director of Surveys and Research for Ithaka S + R, a nonprofit organization that works with academics and cultural communities within higher education.

After inspecting 875 universities since the pandemic began, Wolff-Eisenberg said that half of the libraries reopened with access restricted to the building and / or limited hours. Pitt was also one of the participants.

One in five survey participants said their libraries are completely closed or open. Three-quarters of the participants stopped or restricted access to buildings for the general public, according to to the survey.

Libraries have also used cleaning protocols such as quarantining returned materials for a certain time before staff come into contact with the materials, according to the survey.

Since many services can be performed online, Wolff-Eisenberg said library workers who do not feel safe returning may want to continue working remotely, if employers allow it.

“There are many services that can be provided remotely,” he said, adding that some library workers may question return in person if their work can be done remotely.

At Carnegie Mellon University, libraries are open but restricted to students, staff, and faculty, and the university has implemented new guidelines for the fall semester. For example, some floors of the Hunt Library are closed and people must reserve a seat in advance, in accordance with COVID guidelines published by the university.

In a published statement, Carnegie Mellon University spokeswoman Julie Mattera said that students leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday cannot return to campus and that students classes will be remote for the remainder of the semester.

“During the remainder of the semester, the university will continue with the same protocols that have been implemented during the fall, which include: mandatory face coverings and physical distancing on campus, asymptomatic tests in course and adequate reserve capacity for residential students who need to isolate and quarantine. These same protocols will be in effect for the beginning of the spring semester when students coming to campus will undergo asymptomatic arrival tests, ”Mattera said in an email.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which has 19 locations in the community, adapted to the pandemic with measures such as quarantining books during at least four days before staff process them, provide staff with protective equipment, including deep cleaning and temperature monitoring of staff, spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes said.

Libraries provide important resources for the public in a time of heavy reliance on online or remote services, he explained.

"There are people in the community who do not have reliable access to technology, so we would see people in cars outside our buildings using WiFi "she said.

Libraries could be useful spaces for people who may be unemployed and need access to a computer or students learning online, Thinnes said.

In-person services at public library locations are suspended at all locations, according to a Wednesday announcement.

The COVID plan is based on individual behavior

How libraries are used during the COVID era has been a question raised by some Pitt library employees .

When the fall semester began, Pitt's libraries were seen as a place for students to go to study, but once students go home for break, the libraries will be used by graduate students and professors.

Pitt's libraries will remain open until December 11 and then will be closed for the winter break from December 21 to January 6, Zwick said.

But employees are concerned that people assigned to work in person are at higher risk of contracting the virus, as the university community congregates indoors and some have to move to work. Some employees questioned why facilities are not closing and switching to online or contactless collection services.

Throughout the decision-making process, library employees said that the director of the university library system is receptive to comments or concerns, although all five questioned whether those concerns were considered. by top Pitt leaders.

The communication style was also reduced from constant monitoring of meetings with colleagues, supervisors, and other managers to more individual conversations.

The messages behind security have also generated confusion, some library employees said. Guidance from a federal level to a state level and to the county level does not always align and the campus is caught between different authorities.

A library clerk said calling the current high-risk situation in Pitt "shelter-in-place" but still allowing students to visit different parts of campus could confuse students. students because they can still leave their apartments and dormitories.

Eric Macadangdang, chairman of the student government board and a senior at Pitt, said institutions like the university depend on people to take serious precautions when it comes to the pandemic .

“When you set up a system-wide approach that relies heavily on individual behavior to be successful, you are likely to have some cracks. We started to really see that again a couple of weeks ago when we saw this huge increase in cases, ”Macadangdang said.

During reopening discussions for the fall, he said that he brought up relying on human behavior, but acknowledged that there was "no solution" and that the university had to address both the college experience such as the pandemic.

The Halloween weekend, which according to Pitt caused the spike, inched towards increasingly cold weather, flu season, an election week where people it met and the activities were directed to the interior. Macadangdang said it was a "volatile situation" with all factors colliding with each other.

As students leave campus for the holidays, some of the library employees are concerned that the decision to keep spaces like the Hillman Library open heralds health concerns for the next spring semester.

Macadangdang looks at how even a small number of students who ignore the protocols can affect the wider community.

“In a non-pandemic situation, obviously we could focus and put our full attention on that 90% of students who are doing the right thing but in a pandemic it could be that between 1 and 2% of people do not comply and are not sure, "he said.

Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in association with Open Campus. You can reach her at naomi@publicsource.org .

This story was verified by Emily Briselli.

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