Issues with the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system in the Humanities Classroom Building have led to safety concerns and a need to reduce the burden on the older building's electrical system. The HVAC system is "nearing the end of its service life," and is scheduled for replacement, according to university spokesperson Jeff Stensland.
“I think the biggest issue is that we all have the right to work in safe spaces, safe places, and our employers need to provide safe spaces to workers. And this is not happening right now,” Mercedes Lopez-Rodriguez, who teaches two classes in the building, said.
Issues with the HVAC system started when the system began having trouble "distributing sufficient cool air on recent very warm days," Stensland said in an email. To help mitigate this problem, the university had portable coolers installed in the building, with a focus on the larger classrooms.
These portable coolers ended up being too much for the building's electrical system, and the circuit breakers were tripped on multiple occasions, Stensland said.
On Sept. 2, interim Provost Stephen Cutler emailed students with classes in the Humanities Classroom Building informing them that all classes in the building would move to an online modality until Oct. 1. Faculty was not consulted on this decision.
On Sept. 3, Joel Samuels, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, sent an email announcing a new plan. This plan gave instructors on the second, third and fourth floors of the building the option to choose whether they moved their course online or remained face-to-face.
Lopez-Rodriguez said she's been teaching in the Humanities Classroom Building since 2013, and the issues concerning "proper AC and proper facilities" have been issues since the beginning of her experience at USC.
However, it isn't just issues with the HVAC system that have her concerned.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and (the) delta variant changed everything we knew up to this point. And there is no possibility of social distancing in this classrooms. On top of that, we had the issue of the heat, which makes it even harder for students wearing a mask,” Lopez-Rodriguez said.
Lopez-Rodriguez said she raised her concerns about the lack of social distancing in her classes through her chair to the university and made a request for a bigger classroom. She was told that there were no rooms available.
“I think that my chair and my program really have done everything possible, but the problem goes beyond our unit. It is the facilities. We don't have enough classrooms, and the classrooms are in such condition — it's not safe anymore,” Lopez-Rodriguez said.
Lopez-Rodriguez said she decided to consult her students when choosing whether or not to move her classes online. Students in one class decided to move to a hybrid model, while students in her other class decided to stay face-to-face but will reevaluate this decision on a weekly basis.
“I have complained very often that our opinions, thoughts and experiences as faculty were not taken into consideration when decisions were made,” Lopez-Rodriguez said. “For that reason, I didn’t want to do the same and take a decision without asking my students.”
Although she knows her students want to be in-person, Lopez-Rodriguez said she asks herself if this situation is safe for her students everyday.
“I was very close to saying, ‘Let’s go online,’ but I got emails from students,” Lopez-Rodriguez said. “Somebody wrote me an email saying, ‘I am so happy to be face-to-face again, because I feel like, for the last year, I wasn't learning Spanish.’ I have that moral responsibility, but, at the same time, I wanted to keep it safe for my students, too.”
Samuels also cited messages from students expressing their desire not to return to virtual classes in his email, as did interim university President Harris Pastides in an address to the student senate.
“But, you’d be surprised how many students have said, ‘Please, we’d rather be hot,’ than be sent home to take classes virtually,” Pastides said.
The HVAC system will be replaced on the upper three floors of the Humanities Classroom Building by fall 2022, according to Stensland. This is estimated to cost $975,000.
The lower two floors of the building will “be addressed in the near future,” according to Stensland.
“On a large, historic campus like ours, aging infrastructure can occasionally become problematic, but we are appreciative of our Facilities Department staff, Provost Cutler, and Dean Samuels for finding a temporary solution that allows for additional in-person classroom instruction this fall,” Stensland said.
Lopez-Rodriguez said the solution will look different for professors depending on a number of factors, including class size and whether or not they have children at home. Children age 12 and younger are still not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC.
Going forward, Lopez-Rodriguez said she believes the university should consult its faculty.
"Trust your faculty, trust their judgment and listen before taking decisions," Lopez-Rodriguez said.