VIDEO: Spring semester and COVID-19 Town Hall

As spring semester gets underway, UND leaders answer questions about omicron surge, home tests, remote work and more

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, Jan. 12, UND leaders held a Town Hall for the University’s faculty and staff. Above is a Zoom video of the Town Hall, and below is a time-stamped list of the questions and answers addressed in the video.

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2:55: Statement from President Andy Armacost on Catholic Conference Letter about UND draft Gender Inclusion Policy:

Earlier this week, the North Dakota Catholic Conference issued a letter about a draft policy at the University of North Dakota regarding gender inclusion and gender identity.

The draft policy was not a case of a campus “going rogue.” We began drafting this gender inclusion policy to implement federal law, Supreme Court rulings, North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights policy and State Board of Higher Education policy.

Our draft policy is intended to protect transgender members from harassment and discrimination, consistent with those federal laws and state policies.

The Catholic Conference’s letter makes claims about the draft policy that simply aren’t true. Yet, we appreciate their public statement about treating others with respect, which is the aim of any policy we adopt.

We are firmly committed to freedom of religious expression and fully recognize that, as we address the rights of one group, we cannot do it to the detriment of the rights of another group.

When we face such challenges, we are convinced that there’s no better place than our campus to resolve such conflicts and to come together as human beings to arrive at good solutions for all and to treat everyone with respect.

UND will be hosting a virtual press conference at 10 a.m., Friday, Jan. 14, via Zoom webinar, to discuss this issue and respond to questions. Questions will be addressed by UND panelists, including UND President Andrew Armacost.

In addition to Friday’s press conference, we welcome an open conversation with the Catholic Conference leadership to clarify any misunderstandings.

Please know we fully support the rights of our LGBTQ+ community as well as all members of religious groups on our campus. No human being should be denied the right to an education or employment at UND on the basis of any legally protected category.

7:30: Faculty, staff and students are required to wear masks indoors, in public areas. Are construction and maintenance workers exempt from this requirement?

8:38: Has the group leading the Strategic Plan been identified? What was the process in putting that group together?

9:57: If a student tells us they tested for COVID-19 at home, using a home kit, should we ask for more official documentation or more official tests, or assume they’re providing us with accurate information?

11:40: My concern is with home COVID-19 tests. Students report as positive or negative. For extensions on coursework due to COVID, I have asked students to provide documentation of their test results with a home test. With the home test, there is no official documentation. … Is it wrong for me to request documentation of the COVID results? Can I ask a student who took a home test to be tested on campus? … What documentation is acceptable relative to providing extensions on coursework?

14:20: Why are masks still required when one-fifth of students are freshmen and they don’t wear masks in any of the dorms? All public schools have gotten rid of the mask mandates, and there’s a lot of information that proves that masks aren’t effective.

17:50: If a staff employee is remote due to an accommodation through HR, because of a medical reason, but their position isn’t remote full time, when can we expect those employees back?

19:50: Other than because we’re federally mandated, why have a mask mandate when there’s absolutely no enforcement or consequences for not wearing one?

24:20: What’s happening with Career Fair?

25:26: Which mask is preferred? KN95 or N95?

27:44: There have been many tests with masks, of late, where carbon monoxide buildup seems to be a major concern where parts per million can reach dangerous levels. Is there a concern? I think mask-wearing could be hurting people as a function of carbon monoxide buildup.

28:47: Are masks now required in residence halls? I was informed it was optional; has that changed?

29:35: Is there any chance we go virtual sometime during the semester?

34:18: Students might be throwing away boxes of masks in classrooms; should faculty be bringing boxes to classes?

35:08: What about staff who do not have a medical reason to work remotely but do so because their supervisor allows it? When can we expect those people to be back?

41:07: Is HR going to change the requirement for filing paperwork for employees who work from home regularly, or part time, during the Omicron surge? That is, previously, employees made arrangements with their supervisors, then HR required formal paperwork for medical reasons to work from home, and we were encouraging most employees to come back to campus full time. Now, it sounds like we may be returning to encouraging people to work from home part time to reduce the impact of the surge.

42:58: How long should you wear an N95 before putting on a new one?

44:13: During inclement weather, can supervisors receive more guidance on when we’re able to allow staff to work remotely for the day, even though the campus is open?

49:57: Can we get an update on the status of the search for a vice president of Student Affairs?

51:03: What is the status of vaccine requirements for those working on federal grants and contracts?

51:51: I teach face-to-face classes this semester and prefer not to teach those classes in hybrid format. How do I handle requests from students who want to participate online?

53:37: How will the criticism of the Task Force on the Future of Higher Education’s report impact selection for the Strategic Plan Committee? Many of the comments raised legitimate concerns; more than a few noted the Task Force focused on tenured faculty as a point of concern.

56:15: Can you address the rumor that the hockey games are canceled this weekend due to positive cases at UND?


Questions and answers addressed offline

Following are questions that were not able to be answered live during the Faculty/Staff Town Hall.


What is the status on the search for vice president for Student Affairs?

The search committee contract is being finalized this week, and the initial meeting will take place Friday morning.

The Career Fair is set for Feb. 1. Will that be changed to virtual?

We still are planning to hold the Career Expo in person.

Questions regarding COVID-19

If a student tells us that they tested at home using a home kit, should we ask for more official documentation or a more official test, or take them at their word regarding their status?

During a Public Health call earlier this morning, we learned that the state will be updating its website to include instructions for isolation of those who test positive in an at-home test. This should be considered a positive result, and they will not be instructed to re-test at an official test site.

Are UND Alumni Association & Foundation or other affiliated employees able to test at Wilkerson or is that strictly for UND faculty, staff and students?

All are welcome to test at Wilkerson, and no one will be turned away. Pre-register for testing at this link: https://testreg.nd.gov/.

If a staff member is coughing/sneezing and is obviously sick but insists it’s just a “head cold” and does not want to get tested for COVID or stay home, what should local leaders or co-workers do?  Are there enforcement options besides the CDC guidelines we are supposed to follow?

This is a tough question because we are in cold and flu season, in addition to an upswing in positive COVID cases. Generally, if an employee is not feeling well, they should be encouraged to either take a sick day or work remotely, when possible, if they feel well enough to work. The best case in these situations is for the employee to stay home and take care of themselves. If they have coughing/sneezing but feel well enough to work (no fever), they should wear a mask and generally stay away from co-workers, if possible, and stay in their personal workspace/office, etc.

If we do get COVID, is this considered an “on-the-job injury?”

No. WSI (North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance) does not cover viruses. Gov. Doug Burgum has lifted an exemption for first responders (fire, police, health care, etc.) and they can file WSI claims if they contract COVID-19. Filing a claim does not guarantee coverage/acceptance, as WSI reviews claims on a case-by-case basis, not as a blanket review by injury/exposure type.

Questions about masks

Is the KN95 mask washable? If not, how long can you use it?

They can be worn until they become dirty or wet.  They should be stored in a paper bag between wearings to extend their use.

Who can we contact to restock masks in classrooms?

The administrative assistants in your colleges have the ability to order and restock COVID supplies for your areas.

What are the medical exemptions for not wearing a mask?
From a medical standpoint, there are very, very, few reasons. Possible:

  1. Patient on supplemental oxygen.
  2. Extremely severe (based on objective testing) lung disease (usually also would be on supplemental oxygen).
  3. Children/adults with developmental delay; institutionalized patients with behavioral disorders.

The bottom line for the vast majority of UND-employed individuals is that there likely is no medically justified exemption.

An employee or student could receive an accommodation regarding mask-wearing as a result of a medical or mental health disability. Those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis based on information provided by the individual’s medical provider.

Questions about storm days

When we had a storm and the campus opened at 10 a.m., I had to use vacation time because I was unable to get to work. Yet, the employee working remotely did not. How is that fair?

Remote employees should have been working those two hours as well, and if they were not, they should have taken leave for those two hours. All employees scheduled to work that day should have been working for those two hours. It does not matter whether the employee was remote or on campus. If they did not work, leave must have been taken.

Follow-up question about working while campus was closed due to weather. It was my understanding that nonessential employees were not expected to work while campus was closed regardless of whether they are working on campus or remotely. Can you clarify expectations?

Yes, that is correct. If the employee is nonessential, they are not required to work.

Closure can be confusing. [The previous] response suggested that remote employees should have been working the two hours of closure, assuming their workday is 8-5 and UND opened at 10. Is that correct? I think the person asking the question was maybe wondering why they had to take vacation to stay home for the hours after closure (10-5) when a remote employee just gets to work from home.

Yes. All employees scheduled to work should have been working from 10 a.m. to noon. If an employee was not able to come to work or made the decision to stay home, or not work remotely during that time, the employee should take annual leave. The location of work does not matter, on campus or remote.  If they were not working and were scheduled, leave should have been taken.

Questions about working remotely

If a staff employee is remote due to an accommodation through HR because of a medical reason and the pandemic, but their position was not created to work remote full time, at what point can we expect those employees back?  It’s a real morale killer when offices aren’t fully staffed and those remote aren’t held to the same standards and accountability, making more work for the employees on-campus in person.

If  an employee is working remotely due to COVID-related health issues, we work with that employee and their medical provider to ascertain when it would be safe for the employee to return to work on campus. This may be a short period of time or it could be a longer period of time. Regarding work production, remote employees are to be held to the same level of accountability as a person who works on campus.

What about staff who do not have a medical reason to be remote, but rather are just allowed to be remote because their supervisor allows it? When can we expect those people to be back? Why are some people held accountable and others aren’t? When will a standard be made by the University for all UND employees instead of the individual supervisors? Low morale and frustration are a very real thing for the employees on campus every day.

Decisions regarding working remotely are made at the local and divisional level. The supervisor and vice president make those decisions. As mentioned in the Town Hall, there may be employees who don’t come back to work fully or in part on campus. Remote employees are held at the same level of accountability for their work as those on campus. The University currently will not be making a unilateral decision to bring back all employees to campus. President Armacost has made this a divisional decision left up to each vice president.

I understand that this can be very frustrating, and we encourage teams/departments to work together to ensure all feel connected to each other. This is a culture shift for UND and other institutions of higher education and will take time to get used to and normalize.

Is HR going to change the requirement for filing paperwork for employees to work from home regularly (full or part time) during this Omicron surge? That is, previously employees made arrangements with their supervisors, then HR required formal paperwork for medical reasons to work from home when we were encouraging most employees to come back to campus full time, but now it sounds like we may be returning to encouraging people to work from home part time to reduce the impact of the Omicron surge.

If employees are approved to work for the short term, say two or three weeks (less than a month), the supervisor can work with that employee without any formal HR paperwork. This stands whether it is hybrid with a couple of days a week at home and three days on campus, etc. If the person is going to work 30 days or longer, then the supervisor and area vice president must submit the remote worksite location agreement.

 I’m really disappointed in colleagues making assumptions that those working remotely are being held to a different standard. This is far from true. I have found that working from home I get much more done than I do in the office. The level of time wasted in office on talking is fine for community, but actual service to our students and faculty can be much more productive without the distraction. I think people need to look at their own work and not judge others for what they are doing.

Thank you for your response.

To the defensive remote worker, I’m happy to hear that you are working more, but that is not the case with all remote workers. It weighs heavily on those of us in-person in our office, especially when we see remote staff in our area not available, not responding to emails, not taking phone calls, and their calendar is filled with “private appointments.” The community aspect is important for morale, and when expectations are inconsistent, it’s hard to keep a positive attitude about coming into the office. Those of us in-person are also the ones who now are handling all the walk-in traffic and often the questions that would have otherwise gone to the person who is remote.

I encourage you to speak with leadership in your area to make sure they are aware of your concerns. Additionally, please feel free to reach out to your area HR manager for assistance if need be.  You also can give me a call, too. (Answered by Peggy Varberg, associate vice president for Human Resources & Payroll Services.)

Not sure if any of you like podcasts, but Hidden Brain is a great one, and there is a really good one about working remotely. It has some great research behind it. It is titled “Work 2.0: The One-Room Commute” … highly recommend listening! It was recorded on Nov. 29.

Thank you!  Always looking for good information regarding this topic.