Faculty Senate calls for transparency from officials about HVAC upgrades

Media Credit: Grace Hromin | Senior Photo Editor

The Faculty Senate met in person for the first time in more than a year while guests were invited to tune in virtually.

The Faculty Senate passed a resolution Friday urging officials to release more information about the status of HVAC upgrades that were made across campus buildings to block the spread of the coronavirus after they said administrators have spread “misinformation” about ongoing maintenance.

The resolution, which passed with one abstention and one vote in opposition, calls for the University to provide a list of campus buildings and their corresponding level of alignment with expert guidelines with the GW community. The resolution comes after officials released a statement in June indicating that updates to GW’s HVAC systems were complete – but senators said in the resolution that two senate committees were told otherwise in a confidential presentation with Scott Burnotes, the vice president of safety and facilities.

Eric Grynaviski, a faculty senator and member of the senate’s physical facilities committee, said officials should follow the precedent set by former University President Steven Knapp, who provided data to the senate outlining the condition of campus infrastructure during his own presidency. But he said this was at a time when HVAC upgrades were not a primary concern, prior to the pandemic.

“So when we’re asking for the comprehensive assessment, we’re just asking for things that are traditionally provided to the Faculty Senate,” he said. “As a matter of course, this is information that the Faculty Senate has the right to know because it is essential to the education, teaching and research mission of the University.”

Grynaviski said officials should disclose this information to the GW community to allow students, faculty and staff who are immunocompromised, have family members who are immunocompromised or are unvaccinated to decide what precautions to take.

“It’s important for individuals like myself who have unvaccinated kids at home and worry about bringing the virus home to them or people who have a spouse or family members when certain types of health conditions for the virus might be particularly dangerous to them,” he said.

Grynaviski also showed a photo at the meeting of an office in the American studies building with an air conditioning unit that had mold “dripping” down the wall.

“So there are visible signs that the University had not undertaken the study or done the work, especially the inspections of the air filters which they said they did,” he said.

Several students who were evacuated from Townhouse Row last Sunday visited the hospital with symptoms that appear related to mold exposure after officials detected “biological growth” in the buildings. Dozens of students have also found mold growing in nearly 10 residence halls across campus, with some also visiting the hospital for symptoms that appear to be related to mold exposure.

Phil Wirtz, a faculty senator and professor of decision sciences and psychology, said neither Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz nor LeBlanc signed off on recent University announcements regarding updates to GW’s HVAC systems.

He said the apparent lack of oversight may have contributed to the “miscommunication.” He said an “additional pair of eyes” may have helped clarify officials’ statements.

“We still have found ourselves in buildings that aren’t up to speed,” Wirtz said. “There has been a serious miscommunication – and let’s just leave it at that – that has, in fact, questionably led to the hospitalization of some of the people for whom we are fundamentally responsible as our first responsibility.”

More than 70 GW community members have been met with mold growth and water leaks in campus buildings after returning to in-person activities this semester – including multiple professors in Building GG, which houses the psychology department. More than 10 psychology professors and graduate students in 2019 complained of sewage pipe bursts, mold and pests, demanding a new building.

Miriam Galston, a faculty senator and an associate professor of law, said at the meeting that Burnotes, the vice president of safety and facilities, told her that he wasn’t aware that Building GG was being used as a classroom.

Interim Provost Chris Bracey delivered an update about the University’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying students have reported “a few” complaints about faculty mask non-compliance, like not wearing masks properly over the nose and instructing without masks within six feet of students. He added students have reported feeling “uncomfortable” about faculty instructing without masks while walking around the classroom.

The University currently permits faculty to lecture without a mask in a classroom if they are more than six feet away from students. Bracey said officials have developed a “review, tracking and enforcement process” that allows for “escalation” of repeat offenders as a result of the complaints.

“I encourage you all to remind your colleagues to abide by the mask mandate when in class because the students are paying attention,” he said.

Bracey said Disability Support Services has contacted and provided select faculty with clear masks to wear for classes with students with hearing or communication difficulties. He added that voice amplifiers are available from GW Information Technology in Rome Hall for faculty who teach in large rooms and may need more assistance making their voice heard while wearing a mask.

He said officials also distributed masks to all schools and deans, who will then distribute them to all academic departments on campus.

Bracey said the Campus COVID Support Team, which is responsible for GW’s contact tracing, will provide faculty with an “informative” notification but won’t notify all students if someone in the class tested positive for the coronavirus.

He said CCST will only inform close contacts of exposure because the positive student may not have been in a classroom during relevant periods, not everyone in the class may have been in close proximity to the student and the student can identify those who would constitute “close contacts.” He said this process allows CCST to dedicate its resources to those who are most likely to have been exposed and in close contact.

“Not every person in every class will be contacted about a potential exposure, but every faculty member will be informed that someone in the class has tested positive,” he said.

Bracey also gave an update on the University’s enrollment, saying the freshmen class currently totals 2,585 students, “right on target” with officials’ estimates and a 30 percent increase from last year. He said although only 44 percent of freshmen submitted an SAT or ACT score due to the coronavirus pandemic that halted in-person exams, their academic profile remains “strong” and “consistent” with the past two classes.

Bracey said the University recorded 25,983 total students on the first day of classes with approximately 6,500 residential students living on campus this semester. He said first-year residential enrollment and retention rates increased this year, with the first-to-second-year retention rate improving from 88 percent to 91 percent.

“We saw a slight increase in the number of new first generation, low income and traditionally underrepresented students,” he said. “A number of schools grew their undergraduate and graduate enrollments slightly this year as compared to fall of 2020.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.