On June 12, the UNC Graduate Workers Collective issued a response to the University’s reopening plan for fall 2020. The demand is a straightforward rejection of UNC’s plan to conduct in-person instruction, and a call for all-remote instruction. While UNC’s administration paints all-online instruction as a radical and unrealistic measure, here are five reasons why I, a UNC graduate student worker, think this is in fact a more-than-reasonable, actually necessary, option.
1. Will we be the “second wave?” COVID-19 case reports have been rising steadily since Phase I of North Carolina’s reopening plan was put in motion on May 8. With this reopening, the number of hospitalizations has continued to set new records in recent weeks. While the University insists that its fall semester plan would avoid a potential second wave of the virus, there is nothing that suggests we are even going to be out of the first wave by the beginning of classes on Aug. 10. Bringing 20,000 students to campus would, in fact, likely catalyze the so-called “second wave."
2. The limits of safety protocols enforcement. Measures like social distancing and mask-wearing are widely accepted as the main protocols to contain the spread of the virus, and it is important for people to follow them. The effectiveness of masks, however, is contingent on their widespread use, something that is, at best, difficult to guarantee on a large university campus. It is unclear how the University will navigate the multiple ethical and legal considerations that need to be taken into account regarding their enforcement of safety protocols. For example, people might not use a face covering for medical reasons, which brings up privacy concerns if they are asked to justify not wearing a mask. Enforcement also raises questions of unequal sanctions, particularly when race, ability, gender and other social markers are taken into account. UNC finds itself in a difficult position where it must ensure that a substantial majority of students, faculty and staff will follow proper safety instructions, while at the same time commit to the equal respect of civil rights for the entire community — a commitment with which UNC has had major struggles in its recent past.
3. The big gaps in the protection of groups at risk. While UNC’s reopening plan offers some flexibility for workers with medical conditions that might put them at greater risk in the case of virus contraction, it is far too limited. First, it places the burden of proof on workers within a system that already makes it unsafe for them to advocate for themselves. The accommodation plan allocates a great deal of the responsibility to employees’ supervisors, whose flexibility and perceptions about COVID-19 might differ immensely. It also ignores the power dynamics at the workplace that prevent workers from even raising concerns about their health to their supervisors. Furthermore, while UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office provides accommodations for employees with particular medical conditions or who are immunocompromised, these resources are insufficient given the amount of people who might have weakened immune systems without being aware of it due to a lack of diagnosis and major inequalities in health care access.
4. Institutional racism and the classist approach to reopening. Activities around educational instruction affect everyone — not just instructors and students. As instructors, we should not only care about our safety, but also the potential impacts our presence on campus will have on other staff, particularly the maintenance and cleaning services personnel whose essential work puts them at major risk of contracting the virus. The unwillingness of the University to consider all-remote instruction is an evident form of structural racism, given that a substantial portion of these workers belong to racial and ethnic minority groups. These groups have already been hardest hit by the pandemic precisely because of the unwillingness of employers nationwide to ensure the safest possible conditions for the conducting of their tasks.