After Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY) abruptly canceled classes for hundreds of students last week, officials in charge of the venerable summer youth enrichment program blamed “the national labor shortage.”
But program leaders in Baltimore deserve most of the blame, say CTY instructors and staffers who have signed an open letter accusing upper management of “gross negligence” leading up to the fiasco.
They say one significant misstep, involving multiple sites in Pennsylvania, was caused by the failure of CTY’s central office to make sure that state-mandated security clearances for staffers had been obtained in time.
“We were told last Friday – 48 hours before the students were to arrive – that because a large amount of instructors and other staffers didn’t have their clearance, we would have to cancel classes,” said David Kumler, an instructor at the Franklin & Marshall College site in Lancaster, Pa.
That’s why Kumler and his colleagues were surprised to see a Washington Post story that quoted officials attributing the cancellations to “the nationwide labor shortage affecting many industries.”
While there admittedly is a labor shortage issue, CTY’s “explanation is very misleading,” Kumler told The Brew. “There’s a lot more going on here.”
In an open letter sent today [see below], staffers outlined a number of serious concerns, including what they described as both a punitive and “cavalier” approach to Covid-19 risks that put students and staff at physical and financial risk.
JHU: New Leader Appointed
The episode comes as a major blow for CTY, a highly respected program founded in the late 70s. Its staff provides classes at sites across the country and abroad in three-week blocks on subjects that range from Existentialism to Electrical Engineering.
Today, acknowledging that the program “has not met Johns Hopkins University’s standards,” Provost Sunil Kumar announced today that, effective immediately, Professor Stephen Gange, executive vice provost for academic affairs, will serve as CTY’s interim executive director
Kumar promised that other JHU leaders and subject matter experts will:
• Establish an operational support team for CTY programs.
• Ensure that all on-site staff and instructors whose employment was impacted by cancellations or COVID-19 will be paid their full salaries.
• Develop retention bonuses for on-site staff and instructors.
• Review the decisions that allowed the situation to deteriorate and deliver a full report to the university administration.
The announcement noted that this is CTY’s first summer in-person since the onset of the pandemic, which required the classes to be held virtually for two years.
Few Covid Precautions
Kumar’s statement did not address any of the staff’s specific allegations. They extend across all of the program sites, which include local facilities in Baltimore, as well as at college and private schools in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Upon being hired for the summer of 2022, the letter said, staffers were told that if they tested positive for Covid-19, they would have to leave the site within 24 hours and would not be paid for the remainder of the session.
“While many staff accepted this risk, this grossly unfair arrangement no doubt affected CTY’s ability to hire,” staff letter noted. “Those who did accept the offer were not prepared for just how few precautions would be in place.”
Staffers who tested positive for Covid were told they would have to leave the site and would not be paid for the remainder of the session.
“CTY did mandate testing prior to arrival. We were required to show evidence of a negative test within the 24 hours prior to arrival.” Kumler said. “But once on site, CTY made explicit that we cannot require anyone to be tested again, even if they are showing symptoms. Furthermore, there would be no regular, mandatory testing throughout the session.
“Without daily testing or contact tracing, staff have been uncertain as to whether or not they have been exposed,” the letter continued.
The strained and chaotic situation at the Franklin & Marshall site demonstrates the cumulative impact these lapses, Kumler said.
The day the site opened, the director of resident life and and two resident assistants (RAs) tested positive for Covid, he said. Yesterday, a student and an instructor tested positive.
“There is only one male RA with a background clearance in charge of 100 male students,” he said.
RA’s who are usually in charge of 8-15 students are instead responsible for as many as 10 times that number, he said. “They’re overwhelmed.”
For session 2, he said “we were informed that 15 courses had been canceled leaving nine courses remaining.”
This will be his third year in charge of a CTY course, said Kumler, who teaches about political and social dissent and lives and works in Seattle.
He said he hoped the administration pulls CTY together and addresses the staff’s longstanding complaints of being overworked and underpaid. (He said he receives just $3,200 per session.)
“There’s a lot of instructors with a strong allegiance to the program that they should value,” he said. “Some went here as a kid, and some have been teaching here for decades.”
Open Letter to CTY Leadership
To: Virginia Roach, Liz Albert, and the senior leadership of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth:
As CTY staff we are all committed to CTY’s students. Indeed, the opportunity to work with such gifted students is the primary draw for many CTY faculty and staff, who work tirelessly to serve students’ best interests.
However, this summer, CTY has created an unsustainable working and learning environment. While issues such as low pay (particularly for residential and administrative assistants) and the burden of travel expenses have long been a concern for CTY staff, this year has introduced new and particularly pressing concerns related to both staff shortages and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only have CTY and Johns Hopkins neglected to institute proper safety protocols to protect against COVID-19 infection, but amid staff shortages which have already resulted in mass cancellations of courses and programs, CTY has disincentivized COVID testing and overwhelmed the already overburdened residential staff. Doing so has exposed both students and employees to unnecessary risk.
These failures are not the responsibility of on-site program leadership and staff, but are a product of gross negligence on behalf of CTY’s senior leadership.
Upon being hired, academic and residential staff were told that if we contracted COVID, we would be held liable: Any staff member to test positive is required to quarantine off-site at their own expense and will not be paid for the quarantine period.
It is no surprise to us that CTY faced difficulties in hiring staff members this summer. A positive COVID test early in the session would mean not only a loss of income, but potentially significant expenses resulting in a net loss overall – many of us, after all, must spend a significant portion of our income on flights and other forms of travel to and from the site. Understandably, this risk was one that many potential hires were unwilling to take on.
“We did not imagine that Hopkins and CTY would be so cavalier about safety.”
While those of us who did accept positions at CTY understood this risk and accepted it in the best interests of CTY’s students, we did not imagine that Hopkins and CTY would be so cavalier about safety.
COVID testing for staff is sparse at best, as staff are required to procure their own tests off-site, and when staff members do contract COVID, we are made aware of this only through backchannels. Absent daily testing and any attempt at contact tracing, staff are uncertain as to whether or not they have been exposed.
Hopkins and CTY – by failing to mandate testing and by offloading COVID risks onto their underpaid employees – have created a situation wherein staff members who experience COVID symptoms have more reason to work through the symptoms and avoid testing than to seek treatment or quarantine. To put this in explicit terms, CTY’s central office has disincentivized any attempt at COVID mitigation by forcing staff to bear the financial risks associated with potential positive tests.
Because Hopkins and CTY have decided to penalize their staff for a risk we all face living amidst a pandemic, those at the top of both organizations have jeopardized the health and safety of students and put staff at financial and medical risk.
By failing to both institute appropriate measures against COVID and to offer fair pay for the hard work that academic and residential staff do on behalf of CTY students, Hopkins and CTY have failed not only staff, but students and parents. Staff shortages have become a risk to students as overwhelmed residential staff struggle to keep track of 50 or more campers.
“CTY and Johns Hopkins placed profit above student and staff well-being.”
In response to CTY and Johns Hopkins’ decision to place profit above student and staff well-being, we, members of CTY’s academic and residential staff, therefore demand certain measures that will ensure that CTY can continue to be a valuable and empowering learning experience for students:
• Daily COVID testing for students and staff. This testing should be provided by Johns Hopkins to students and staff free of charge.
• Guaranteed financial support during quarantine for any staff member who tests positive for COVID-19. Specifically, Johns Hopkins must cover room and board and any travel expenses accrued by staff members who must quarantine off-site.
• Guaranteed compensation for staff members who are forced to leave campus after testing positive for COVID. Johns Hopkins has already announced that it will pay the salaries of staff members whose jobs were eliminated due to the mishandling of background clearances – we expect that the same guarantee be extended to those of us who are risking exposure on a daily basis in order to give CTY students the best experience possible in this incredibly trying time.
• Immediate expansion of residential staffing. If Hopkins is unable to hire additional residential staff, CTY’s central administration should take responsibility for their oversight and fill those positions themselves.
• Additional financial compensation for the significant increase in labor we have been forced to provide and the additional risk we have taken on. In response to staff shortages, every member of this community – including instructors, teaching assistants, residence assistants, and site leadership – has been forced to take on significantly more responsibility and risk than in past years. We’ve done so not because we want to, but because it’s necessary to keep our students and campers safe and cared for.
Given the significant price that families must pay for their students to attend CTY, it is only reasonable that staff should receive fair compensation for the emotional, intellectual, and physical labor we provide on a daily basis.
In the interest of student safety and the welfare of this camp as a whole, it is not only reasonable but necessary that Johns Hopkins enact the above measures immediately. We expect and anticipate a timely response to these requests.
A Coalition of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Summer Staff, 2022.
7/1/22 UPDATE from the Letter Writers:
Addendum: It has come to our attention that, in the drafting and issuing of this letter, some of the signatories were unaware that this letter would be shared publicly. While we attempted to be clear that this was an open letter, it has become evident to us that many of the staff who supported the content of this letter, or portions of it, hoped that this would be submitted directly to CTY administration and that it would be not be made public. We would like to sincerely apologize to all staff who feel misled or deceived. This was never our intent and, certainly, if we had known that the signatories felt this way, we would not have released this letter–or, at least, we would not have released it in the way that we did For that reason, we would like to take full responsibility for the letter. We want to make clear that this letter does not reflect the opinions of all staff at CTY Lancaster and that, in fact, a number of staff have expressed very clear opposition to both the letter and to the means by which it was disseminated. For that reason, we, David Kumler and Will Kirsch, would like to take full responsibility for this letter and to acknowledge the dissenting opinions that a number of staff hold in regards to its tone, content, and means of dissemination. While we stand by what we have written, we wish to make very explicit that this does not represent the CTY Lancaster staff as a whole and it represents our opinions and our opinions alone.”