‘It only takes one person’: University of Pittsburgh library workers worry about health as COVID-19 cases rise

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Some staff at Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh campus have expressed concerns about safety during the pandemic. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

As the University of Pittsburgh deals with the spike in coronavirus cases among students following the Halloween weekend, the administration ordered students to shelter in place before Thanksgiving break, with a few exceptions.

While the campus has been mostly on a lockdown, one place students can come and go is Hillman Library. Some library employees worry that puts them at risk as cases increase both at the university and Allegheny County at large.

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

But the university maintains 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,” said university spokesman Kevin Zwick in an email. 

Pitt’s decision to keep the five-floor library open embodies a question universities across the country face in the time of COVID-19: how can campuses balance providing basic academic needs with protecting the health of students and staff. 

State of COVID at Pitt

When Pitt students first arrived on campus this fall, the campus outlined three levels of risk that mirrored similar approaches by the state. Each risk level would impact access and activities for the university community, depending on the severity of the virus. In October, the campus loosened some restrictions for student activities — but then Halloween-related gatherings spiked a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

“There have been at least 40 confirmed cases since Friday, which we suspect are linked to gatherings that took place over the Halloween weekend,” an email from the university stated on Nov. 8. Allegheny County saw a similar spike, repeatedly breaking its record for daily COVID-19 cases before announcing a countywide stay-at-home advisory on Wednesday.

The shelter in place order for students was originally planned to start Nov. 12 but was moved up four days. Under the order, students can still leave their rooms or apartments to attend class, labs, exercise or study at locations like Hillman Library. The library’s capacity is limited to 800 people at a time, according to officials and the university library system plan.

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

There has been no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 in any of Pitt’s academic environments,” he said. 

On Nov. 20, students left campus for the holiday and will learn remotely to end the semester, though the library will stay open to patrons until mid-December. Earlier this month, the campus saw a spike of 73 student cases and an increased average of positive cases. On Tuesday, the University reported that 50 students had tested positive and that 99 students were in isolation. Four new faculty or staff cases were reported.

Some university employees raised concerns about the university’s shelter-in-place order, specifically as the elevated risk level gives students the opportunity to use libraries as a study hall. 

As the pandemic worsens, libraries both for students and the general public are navigating how to offer in-person services while taking necessary precautions to slow the spread of the virus and ensure staff and patrons 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 a rise in local cases. At Carnegie Mellon University, which reported 27 new positive cases from Nov. 10 to Nov. 16, people must reserve library spots in advance. 

Pitt libraries have reduced capacity and shortened hours. Hillman Library is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., according to Zwick. Stationed at the ground floor entrance are security guards who check ID and monitor the flow of students, staff and faculty who enter -- not allowing more than 800 people in at a time, according to the university library system plan. Temperatures are checked and library staff complete health checks each day. Other precautions include modified schedules so staff can work ahead of the library opening and not entering the library stacks while the facility is open to the public, he said. 

Inside the library walls, there are directional stickers, plexiglass and signs to reinforce university rules. 

People are required to keep on their masks and at the university hired additional staff and students to walk around the library to ensure students kept on their masks and followed the physical distance rules, Zwick said. Those who do not are asked to follow the set guidelines and are reported to Student Conduct. The custodial staff clean the buildings and employees were given wipes, face masks and a face shield, according to an employee. 

Employees also use a staggered schedule, though some are allowed to work from home and others come in during the week.

Some employees said there were times a student took off a mask or kept it lowered, and sometimes students have reported lapses in safety protocols.

“Sometimes there are students who will come up and report things that they see,” said a library employee. “That’s comforting, but it also takes one person.” 

The university’s plan was a combined effort between medical experts and the Environmental Health and Safety department to adapt the library environments and make them as safe as possible while still serving the students, Zwick said. 

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

Students will continue the semester remotely after the Thanksgiving break, though Hillman Library will stay 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 public-facing services and maintain critical library operations,” according to the university library system plan. There are 32 library staff who work at the Hillman Library though not all at the same time, Zwick noted. 

The library employees considered frontline and necessary to keep up library operations are also some of the lowest paid, employees said. The university library system had the lowest median salary by department level at $31,254, according to the annual salary report for the fiscal year 2019. 

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

In March, the university library system, including Hillman, pivoted from in-person services to online as colleges across the nation shut down campuses in response to the coronavirus. 

Employees said the university built up the online infrastructure to offer eBooks, provide chat box help, search through electronic databases and other services to aid the campus community in ways that were online. 

Curbside services are available in two of the set risk levels elevated and guarded according to the spokesman. 

Libraries across the country

On a national scale, academic libraries are attempting to balance serving college communities and keeping staff safe, said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, the surveys and research manager at Ithaka S+R, a non-profit that works with academic and cultural communities within higher education. 

After surveying 875 universities since the pandemic began, Wolff-Eisenberg said half of the libraries opened back up with restricted building access and/or limited hours. Pitt was also one of the participants. 

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

Libraries have also used cleaning protocols like quarantining returned materials for a certain amount of time before staff come in contact with the materials, according to the survey. 

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

“There are a lot of services that can be provided remotely,” she said adding that some library workers may question returning in-person if their work can be done at a distance.

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 instance, some floors of the Hunt library are closed and people must reserve a seat in advance, according to the COVID guidelines posted by the university. 

In a released statement, Carnegie Mellon University spokesperson Julie Mattera said students who leave for the Thanksgiving holiday are not allowed back to campus and classes will be remote through the rest of the semester. 

“For the remainder of the semester, the university will continue with the same protocols that have been in place throughout the fall, which include: mandatory facial coverings and physical distancing on campus, ongoing asymptomatic testing and setting aside adequate capacity for residential students who need to isolate and quarantine. These same protocols will be in place for the beginning of the spring semester when students coming to campus will undergo arrival asymptomatic testing,” Mattera said in an email. 

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which has 19 locations in the community, adapted to the pandemic with measures like quarantining books for at least four days before staff process them, providing staff with protective equipment, including deep cleanings and checking temperature of staff, said spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes. 

The libraries offer important resources for the public in a time of heavy reliance on online or remote services, she explained. 

“There are people in the community who don’t have reliable access to technology and so we would see people in cars outside of our buildings using WiFi,” she said. 

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

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

COVID plan relies on individual behavior

How libraries are used during the time of COVID has been a question brought up by some Pitt library employees. 

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

Pitt libraries will stay open until Dec. 11 and then closed for winter break from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6, Zwick said.

But employees are concerned that those tasked with working in-person are put at higher risk of contracting the virus as the college community congregates in indoor spaces and some have to commute to work. Some employees questioned why facilities aren’t closing and pivoting to online or no-contact pickup services. 

Throughout the decision making process, library employees said that the university library system director is receptive to feedback or concerns, though all five of them questioned if those concerns were considered by top leadership at Pitt. 

The style of communication also dwindled from constant check in meetings with both colleagues, supervisors and other administrators to more one on one conversations. 

Messaging behind staying safe has also led to confusion, some library employees said. The guidance from a federal level to a state level to the county level does not always align and the campus is caught in between different authorities. 

One library employee said that calling the current elevated risk situation at Pitt ‘shelter in place’ but still allowing students to visit different parts of campus could confuse students because they are still able to leave their apartments and dorm rooms. 

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

“When you set up a whole system-wide approach that largely leans upon individual behavior for it to succeed, then it’s going to be bound to have some cracks in it. We started to really see that again starting a couple weeks ago when we saw this huge uptick in cases,” Macadangdang said. 

During the reopening discussions for the fall, he said he brought up relying on human behavior, but acknowledged that there was not “one solution” and that the university had to address both the college experience and the pandemic. 

The Halloween weekend, which Pitt has said caused the spike, inched into the weather getting colder, the flu season, an election week where people gathered together and activities heading indoors. Macadangdang said it was a “volatile situation” with all the factors crashing into one another. 

As students head off campus for the holiday break, some of the library employees worry that the decision to keep spaces like Hillman library open foreshadows health concerns for the upcoming spring semester. 

Macadangdang notes how even a small number of students ignoring protocols can impact the broader community.

“In a non-pandemic situation, we could obviously focus and put all of our attention to that 90 something percent of students who are doing the right thing    but in a pandemic it could be that 1 to 2% of people who aren’t complying and who are not being safe,” he said.

Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at naomi@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

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