University administration addresses growing COVID-19 concerns

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Students go in and out of the Student Health Services building. University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas and university communications released separate emails last week detailing precautionary measures the university is taking in preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak.  Photo by Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus

Students go in and out of the Student Health Services building. University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas and university communications released separate emails last week detailing precautionary measures the university is taking in preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus

Note: For the next several weeks, The Daily Campus will be publishing one weekly article comprised of COVID-19 (2019 Novel Coronavirus) updates as they pertain to the University of Connecticut. The goal of these articles is to have one cohesive place where readers can receive constant, up-to-date information on the virus in a transparent, sensitive fashion.  

University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas and university communications released separate emails last week detailing precautionary measures the university is taking in preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak as well as travel registration and restrictions put in place for those leaving for spring break.  

Per Katsouleas’s email, the university recently activated the emergency planning and response structure spearheaded by UConn’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The team tasked with evaluating the risk to campus includes several UConn Health physicians and Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) staff.  

OEM recently split into three separate focused working groups that are currently addressing different aspects of COVID-19’s potential impacts on the community. These groups include the Academic Affairs Working Group, the Student Affairs Working Group and the Staff and Faculty Affairs Working Group.  

“Although there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Connecticut or at UConn thus far, as you know, the situation continues to change very quickly,” Katsouleas said. “The health, safety and well-being of our community is our highest priority and continually guides our thinking and actions as we prepare for this threat.” 

University communications announced Thursday that university-affiliated travel to Level 3 and Level 2 countries (as mandated by the Centers for Disease Control) is suspended indefinitely. The list of countries includes China, South Korea, Iran, Italy and Japan. Additionally, individuals on campus who returned from travel abroad in the last 14 days or who plan to go abroad in the next 90 days must fill out an online form so the Office of Global Affairs can advise travels appropriately.

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All faculty, staff and students are strongly encouraged to cancel or postpone all non-essential foreign and domestic travel at this time, including both professional and personal.

The email warned students, faculty and staff to be cautious and smart when making important travel decisions in the coming days, including those leaving the country or going elsewhere in the United States for spring break. 

“All faculty, staff and students are strongly encouraged to cancel or postpone all non-essential foreign and domestic travel at this time, including both professional and personal,” the email read. 

On Saturday, UConn announced on their COVID-19 information webpage that summer education abroad program commitment deadlines are currently suspended until further notice. If an individual has committed to their summer program already and chooses to withdraw, they will not be fined.

On Monday, university communications released an email announcing that all university-affiliated domestic and abroad travel outside of the state is banned for UConn faculty and staff, but that exceptions can be made by contacting operational leadership for a staff member’s respective department.  

Robert Samples, a graduate chemistry student at UConn, expressed his frustration with the university on Sunday in a now-viral tweet in which he claimed a separate email sent to faculty and staff at UConn encouraged those feeling ill to use limited time off to recover.

“Just got an email from UCONN saying that if you get the coronavirus and exhaust your 3 sick days per semester you have to use vacation days or personal leave days to recover,” Samples wrote. “This is how you get people to come back to work when they are still contagious.” 

The email in question specified that it is unclear whether COVID-19 will become an illness where the Family Medical Leave Act is necessary to implement to ensure safety and continued salaries. The message also told employees to use any accumulated leave or additional agreed-upon time to recover. 

“The illness may or may not rise to the level of a Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) event, but the Office of Human Resources will provide all the relevant FMLA paperwork as appropriate,” the email read. “Employees who are or become ill should use accrued leave time, if applicable. If an employee exhausts their sick leave, employees should use other accrued leave, including vacation, personal leave or any additional time prescribed by a specific bargaining agreement or policy.” 

Several hours later, the UConn Twitter account responded to the concerns and clarified that, should COVID-19 spread throughout the university, administration will take the necessary steps to ensure the health of the campus community and that FMLA, if applied, will allow for extended sick time.

“During unusual or extraordinary circumstances such as a pandemic, UConn would of course use maximum flexibility to help ensure the health of our employees/community,” the tweet read. “Our primary message: If you’re sick with an illness of any sort, please stay home to rest & recover.” 

UConn employees have a contract in place with the university which, if employees meet the qualifying requirements, allows them to be eligible for state FMLA, federal FMLA or SEBAC Supplemental leave. These laws allow employees to take extended sick leave beyond their accrued vacation or exhausted sick days. Guidelines for eligibility and how to apply can be found on UConn’s Human Resources web page under Personal Illness Medical Leave.

It is not immediately clear at this time what the plan is for the university and classes should COVID-19 arrive on campus. A Wilton man was the first presumptive positive case in Connecticut on Sunday, and as many as 200 people around the state are being ordered to self-quarantine for their symptoms, according to NBC News.


Taylor Harton is the associate news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at taylor.harton@uconn.edu.

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