BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 20, 2020– After receiving their long-awaited certification, it had seemed that the University of Belize’s Faculty and Staff Union (UBFSU) was satisfied with the progress they had made and were finally receiving the financial data they had been requesting from the school throughout the month of July.
On August 10, 2020, however, another issue arose due to the scheduled date for resumption of classes at the University of Belize, and concerns over whether to go fully virtual at the start of the school year.
The UBFSU issued a press release outlining a myriad of reasons as to why the school was not prepared to reopen on the proposed date of August 17. These justifications included “…teaching assignments and workloads that have yet to be settled, the lack of infrastructure to facilitate the move to online classes, uncertainty with regard to the future of units and departments, management’s methods of approaching union members for so-called voluntary separation, threats to job security, and contract non-renewals.”
The press release also referred to “inequities in management’s proposed cost-saving measures, drastic workload increases, and unfinalised new policies and protocols.” “While all these issues persist, there remains a true lack of consultation with the University of Belize Faculty and Staff,” the press release further said.
In light of these obstacles, the UBFSU offered to assist the university’s management to address some of these issues and also proposed that the start of the school year be pushed back to September 7, 2020, to accommodate a 13-week school year — similar to the length of the school year of other tertiary institutions.
Later that day, the university issued its own release, stating that students need not be confused about the date for the reopening of classes because the original timeline which had been decided by the Board of Trustees, had remained unchanged.
At that point the university had already seen 2,020 student registrations for the upcoming academic year.
Less than a week later, on the day before classes were scheduled to start, General Secretary of the UBFSU, Christopher DeShield, stated in a virtual address that the faculty members of the union would not be formally teaching their classes until course assignments and the other outstanding issues are finalized.
According to Deshield, a high percentage of faculty had only received their finalized teaching assignments a week before classes were scheduled to begin, with other courses still pending.
These circumstances did not afford the teachers an adequate timeframe to upload their course materials onto the appropriate online channels and so, the union was seeking to enter into negotiations with the UB Board of Trustees to try and resolve the matter.
DeShield urged students to contact their lecturers on how to proceed, as well as to continue registering and completing student orientations in the first week of classes, which would prepare them for the semester.
On August 17, 2020, the university’s online site crashed within a matter of hours of students trying to get into their classes. What followed was a strongly worded threat issued by the UB administration:
“Under normal circumstances, if employees dictated to their bosses that they WILL NOT do the work they are being paid for, publicly admonish the employer and put the reputation of the institution in ill repute, that in itself would have amounted to the sufficiency for the Employer/UB to accept the employee’s resignation or terminate same on the grounds of gross misconduct…Failure to commence full teaching duties will leave the University with no other option but to exercise all its rights given to it under the Laws of Belize.”
Despite the jobs of its members being placed in jeopardy, the UBFSU has yet to respond to the letter from the administration. This letter, however, did rouse the National Student Union of Belize (NSUB) to jump to the defense of the UBFSU.
On Tuesday, the NSUB issued a statement pledging solidarity with the UBFSU. According to their statement, the NSUB corresponded with the UBFSU and students, and they too were convinced that the university was not prepared to resume classes.
The NSUB also raised the issue that students were being charged for services that they will not be accessing as a result of the changes brought about by COVID-19, such as computer lab fees, student activity fees and library fees.
Their statement went on to classify the letter which threatens teachers’ jobs as “iniquitous and alarming,” and they expressed their full solidarity with the union in that regard, calling upon the administration to revisit the fees being charged unfairly to their students and to resume negotiations with the UBFSU.
Presently, formal online classes are yet to begin at the University of Belize.