Vivian Day Care Responds to Staff COVID Safety Concerns

Teachers at the Vivian Olum Child Development Center were awarded a pay-raise and shorter work hours after weeks-long negotiations with administrative staff at the Center and UO Campus Services administration. The change comes after the refusal to acknowledge long-held complaints regarding work conditions at the center. Vivian is described on their website as “providing a comprehensive year-round child care and development program serving University faculty and staff families.” Taking in around 80-90 children from “eight weeks to fifth grade,” Vivian employs around 20 teachers and 20 UO student helpers.

Trouble began at the end of last summer. UO had announced a return to full-capacity operations in spring term and with the rise of the Delta variant, teachers at Vivian raised numerous concerns to the directors of the center in hopes of seeking safe and responsible work conditions. Along with the demand to return to full-capacity came an imposition by administrators for mandatory overtime to an already overworked and understaffed group of teachers. The primary concerns regarding COVID and child safety would be exacerbated by the changes demanded by administration. The expansion from smaller cohorts composed of only a few children to full-sized classrooms with a capacity for 10-20 children is an egregious decision that entirely disregards the impending arrival of the Delta variant. Maintaining social distancing under these new changes was simply out of the question.

Additionally, as a result of staffing shortages, teachers at Vivian found the situation extremely strained as they sought to balance their responsibilities as educators with the upkeep of regulatory sanitizing practices and their overall caregiving responsibilities to these children. From the teachers’ perspective, returning to full-capacity with no additional support for the staff would not allow for the proper application of workplace protocols required to enforce precautionary COVID measures. An open letter written by employees for the directors of Vivian was met with a lukewarm response as they stated they had ‘done everything they could’ in conversation with UO administration to express the concerns of the teachers—a paltry response when one considers the decision to return to full-capacity was reached several months before. 

The directors, however, agreed to schedule a meeting with Kassy Fisher, the Associate Vice President for Campus Services and newly-selected “associate vice president and chief of staff for the Office of the Provost.” Fisher is described as a “thoughtful leader and problem-solver who values strategy and collaboration” ; according to Patrick Phillips’ announcement for her selection. The workers at Vivian would offer a slightly different interpretation of her character following their meeting.

When teachers expressed the negative effect a switch to full capacity operations would have on their already strained physical and mental health—while also trying to maintain their responsibility as educators and upholding safe COVID precautions amidst a staff shortage—they only received the perfunctory empathy from Fisher. Fisher even recalled her past experience of working with school-age children in a failed attempt to relate to the employees and offered her week reassurance for what the teachers knew would be unsafe work conditions. Employees continuously refused the call to work mandatory overtime as the economic and personal stress of the pandemic would not allow them to spend any more time at work. When teachers raised their opinion that small cohorts were the reason there had been no outbreaks so far, Fisher fell back on the argument that Vivian’s adherence to ‘state regulations’ would be enough. This simply did not align with actual concerns of employees and there was no agreement with her opinion that state regulations could be sufficient to protect the employees and children at the center. When one of the teachers raised the point that the EMU childcare facility advertises itself as holding itself to higher standards than state regulations and this change in Vivian policy was contradictory to its advertised image, Kassy stated outright that no matter the possible health precautions, the Delta variant would come into the center. 

In a meeting filled with emotion, tears, and heartfelt testimony by a staff concerned with the safety of the children and their capacity to fulfill their role as educators, Kassy’s response was an act of extreme disrespect and disregard for the workers who were actually working with the children on a day-to-day basis. One would imagine that a meeting concerning Vivian policy would allow for teachers to shape future operations at Vivian, instead, they were left with Fisher’s final statement that the ‘UO has moved on from the pandemic.’The unsafe conditions at Vivian posed a greater risk to campus, since the infection of faculty’s children would have the potential for campus-wide implications.

Soon enough, Vivian reported a case of COVID in early October that forced a classroom to close for two weeks. Contract-tracing has become difficult, since the removal of smaller cohorts has forced employees to move between classrooms instead of containing employees to specific classrooms. No further infections were reported, but parents thereafter expressed concern for the maintaining safe COVID protocols. Two employees have left Vivian and another has been fired for what other employees saw as retaliation for speaking to parents about work conditions at the center. Many other teachers have expressed a desire to look for a new job. 

Just last week, Vivian announced that shorter work hours and an increase in pay for lead teachers, leaving substitute and temporary workers out of the conversation. This small benefit does not take away the immense disrespect felt by the workers in the meeting held by Fisher and does help in improving the overall working conditions at Vivian. However, this story is a lesson in what can be accomplished when employees work together in effort to garner respect and dignity for their work. Yet, in the end, we are left with the common sentiment felt across the university wherein students, faculty, and workers alike are left to fend for themselves in the midst of a global pandemic. We should focus on supporting our workers and listening to those on the front lines of this pandemic. How will we prioritize our safety when decisions continue to be made by those on administrative boards with no real experience with the reality at hand?

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