Students returning to campus will, without question, increase the rate of sickness and death within the campus community and beyond. According to a recent talk given by infectious disease experts, UNC has capacity for 164 students to be quarantined on campus. Before the majority of students have even returned, we have reached a quarter of that capacity with the summer football conditioning outbreak. This summer, UNC has continually failed to deliver on promises to protect and care for the wellbeing of students and staff through coronavirus relief and prevention resources, including a total lack of transparency with students’ CARES Act funding, requiring staff to reuse limited and inadequate PPE and not extending testing resources to exposed staff. The University has still not decided or announced when their “off-ramp” would occur or what it would look like.
It is also inevitable, as many have noted, that campus will be forced to return to full online instruction before the end of the semester. Students will again be asked to uproot themselves and further spread COVID-19 to their home communities — and to continue paying for the University housing contracts or off-campus leases they have no choice but to sign to attend on-campus courses at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Saving lives and reducing harm must be our priority. The only reasonable choice is to halt reopening before thousands of students, workers and faculty return to campus. White tenured faculty, you have the power to refuse to implement a deadly reopening plan before the crucial moment when undergraduates return en masse to Chapel Hill.
To date, members of the Anti-Racist Graduate Worker Collective have worked in different ways and with different strategies to do what we can to prevent campus from reopening. We developed an extensively researched petition presenting three simple demands and — recognizing that budget cuts were always going to be announced — outlining practical ways to pursue them without harming the most marginalized among us. This document registered our hope that the campus community would prioritize health and wellbeing over profit or protection of its multi-billion dollar endowment. This means protecting not only the lives of campus workers and graduate students, but their livelihoods, too.
We also spearheaded an effort to work with the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, which is meant to represent all 11,000 UNC graduate and professional students at UNC. We drafted and submitted three resolutions for GPSF’s emergency session: 1) endorse the petition and its demands; 2) demand that UNC protect international and undocumented students; and 3) stand in solidarity with campus workers. All three resolutions were passed almost unanimously and were shared with campus and UNC System leadership.
We have coordinated social media and email campaigns to pressure University administration, consistently communicated with our network of petition signees and gave and solicited feedback to and from University administrators and department chairs. Undergraduate students are doing similar work to push for a remote semester, along with campus workers who have bravely shared their concerns.
This is not the first time students have risked their well-being and livelihoods to fight for the health and safety of our campus community. Members of this collective withheld our labor to prevent the further militarization of UNC Police and Silent Sam’s return. But undergraduate student activists fight every day with their unpaid labor and at the expense of their mental health and physical safety for the rights of working class, BIPOC, disabled and LGBTQ peoples across campus.
Campus workers have also been central to the justice and labor movements on our campus. From the founding of the UNC Janitor’s Association by four Black housekeepers in 1930, to the UNC Food Workers' Strike of 1969, to the demands issued by the UNC Housekeepers' Association in 1996, to going on the record today about UNC’s failure to protect workers from COVID-19, UNC’s non-faculty staff have consistently risked their jobs, reputations and safety in order to make Carolina’s campus a safer place for anyone to work.
Those who will be most affected by UNC reopening this fall are those who have already risked so much to make campus safe and just for everyone. It is wrong for the most protected workers to risk the least and the least protected workers to risk the most.
We have sacrificed a lot in our efforts to make campus safe without faculty support. Now, we are asking you to join us. We come to you with hopeful solidarity and genuine willingness to share our hard-earned experiential knowledge, resources and networks developed over years as labor organizers and activists. There is very little time for you to take the steps necessary to mitigate the sickness and death UNC’s fall reopening will cause. We are hopeful and resolute that you will.
Members of the The Anti-Racist Graduate Student Collective at UNC-Chapel Hill