UT-Austin COVID-19 policies lead faculty and staff to retire or quit

Kevin Vu, News Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the September 21 flipbook. 

Rachel Sidopulos worked for the University for 14 years until she had to make the tough decision to quit after her department did not accommodate her COVID-19 concerns in July. 

“I’m supposed to be the face of our center and what we do, and I’m the person who most people associate with at the center,” said Sidopulos, a former coordinator for the Center for Public Interest Law at the Law School. “But I didn’t feel comfortable having to put on a happy face when I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable seeing someone coming in unmasked and having to be like, ‘Oh, no big deal.’”

Sidopulos has two children too young to get vaccinated at home, so she didn’t want to risk accidentally bringing the virus home. She said her boss refused to wear a mask or accommodate her request to work in a separate empty office. Sidopulos put in her two-week notice a few days later.

“I was told no,” Sidopulos said. “To do my job, I had to be at my desk. They offered to put up plexiglass but I told them no, that’s security theater. They also wouldn’t commit to wearing masks around me.” 

As the University returns to entirely in-person operations this semester without the ability to mandate masks or vaccines, some faculty and staff members have chosen to retire from or quit their positions.

Michael Stoff was an associate history professor who had taught at the University for over 40 years. Stoff said he had planned to retire in spring 2020 for years, but he postponed those plans when the pandemic started and ultimately decided to retire in December 2020 because of uncertainties over whether students would wear masks or be vaccinated.

“I’m of an age now where that can be problematic, even though I’m fully vaccinated,” Stoff said. “I’ve known people who have had breakthrough infections; it’s possible, it happens, and it was not something I wanted to risk at my age.”

In the 2020-2021 school year, 75 faculty and 229 staff members retired, according to Veronica Trevino, media manager for Financial and Administrative Services. In comparison, 56 faculty and 214 staff retired in the 2015-2016 school year. Trevino said the University does not capture reasons for retirement.

Stoff said teaching his last year of courses online was disappointing for him.

“That kind of absence of human contact I found extremely uncomfortable, and (it) felt like I had lost something in the contact I have with my students,” Stoff said. “There’s something about human contact that I think is very important and very powerful. We’re programmed to have contact with each other; we’re not programmed to work through a screen.”

Stoff said now, he is spending his free time writing recommendation letters for students and connecting with his family.

“My life was so busy as a professor; I did not have the kind of time I wanted to spend with my grandchildren and with my wife,” Stoff said. “So now I can do that and that’s been wonderful.”

While Sidopulos can also spend more time with her family now, she said she will miss working with colleagues and students.

“There were definitely aspects of being in the office that I dearly missed,” Sidopulos said. “Working with the students was absolutely my favorite part of my job. Hands down, I absolutely loved it.”

Sidopulos said she also spends her free time relaxing and attending protests with activist groups such as Mothers Against Greg Abbott. She said she would not have quit if the University prioritized the health and safety of the students, faculty and staff. 

“The governor is one man,” Sidopulos said. “School districts and counties are showing you can push back, and every day that you do push back is another day people are being safer. So I wish UT had pushed back.”

Sidopulos said she is disappointed by the school’s leadership.

“You know, I worked for UT for 14 years …  before that, I graduated from UT. I was (a) very proud Longhorn and that’s gone,” Sidopulos said. “I quit UT because what starts here affects the world.”