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'Uncharted territory’: Graduate workers express fears about teaching this semester


The Graduate Student Petition and a previous Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) Meeting in Kerr Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Graduate students who have to teach this fall said they are under-informed and concerned by details that remain unclear as they embark on an unusual semester.

“It doesn't feel like they know what's going to happen and it doesn't feel like they have a really secure plan for the fall, which is not super encouraging if they're then asking people to put themselves at risk for this,” said Sarah Miles, a doctoral candidate in the history department who will be teaching in person this fall.

Miles said she and other graduate students have received little guidance from the University or the Graduate School on how they should structure their classes, such as what percentage of class time needs to be face-to-face. 

Eli LoCicero is a doctoral student in the economics department who will be teaching a course that has been designated as HyFlex. He said he does not think the University has provided — or even has — enough concrete details for its reopening plan.

“It feels like we've been given autonomy, instead of being given really clear parameters about what to do and how,” LoCicero said.

Determining roles

The University is offering 5,183 course sections face-to-face/hybrid this fall, according to UNC’s COVID-19 Dashboard. Many graduate students will be assuming in-person roles as instructors or teaching assistants, despite months of opposition from groups across campus. 

UNC Media Relations said in an emailed statement that all teaching assignments are managed at the department or school level. According to the Graduate School Fall 2020 Operations FAQ, graduate students concerned about performing research assistant or teaching assistant duties on campus needed to discuss their needs with their graduate program and/or supervisor so accommodations could be made.

Jennifer Standish, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, said she will be leading recitations remotely this fall because her adviser gave her a choice and advocated for her preference. Standish said she is fortunate that her adviser was compassionate and understanding of her situation, but said she knows that was not the case for every graduate student. 

Zofia Knorek, a doctoral student in ecology and a research assistant, said the case-by-case nature of determining whether one’s work will be on campus or not was problematic, as there was not autonomy and equity across the board.

Miles will be teaching History 140: The World Since 1945 face-to-face/hybrid this fall. Miles said knowing that the University mandated each department offer a certain number of in-person courses, she decided she was willing to teach in person because she felt she was in a better position than others in her department to navigate the risks and challenges, due to her age and having no underlying health conditions.

“At the end of the day, what the University is asking people to make the decision of is, ‘Are you capable of taking that risk over somebody else?’” Miles said.

Contracting COVID-19 concerns 

When Miles accepted the in-person role, she said she recognized that she may contract COVID-19 during the semester. But she said this reality is concerning from a personal health perspective and in relation to how her class would continue if she was unable to be in class and lecture for two weeks.

LoCicero said he is also concerned about what would happen if he gets COVID-19 while teaching in person. If he or his wife, a high school teacher, test positive at any point, they won’t be able to take their 14-month-old baby to daycare, he said. On top of the potential symptoms he may face, he said he would be unable to work from home while taking care of a baby full time.

UNC Media Relations said in an emailed statement that the RA/TA Graduate Student Blue Health Insurance Plan fully covers the COVID-19 test for insured students with symptoms and those who are identified as a close contact of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The statement also said that under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, graduate students and other student employees are eligible for up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave for the following reasons:

  1. The employee is subject to a government-ordered quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19.
  2. The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19.
  3. The employee is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking medical diagnosis.
  4. The employee is caring for an individual who is subject to a government-ordered quarantine or a health care provider’s recommendation to self-quarantine.
  5. The employee is caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed due to COVID-19, or the child’s regular childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19.
  6. The "employee is experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Labor.”

Complexities of planning for the semester

Miles said planning her course this semester has taken much more work. She has needed to think through various scenarios to best prepare for the uncertainties of the semester, such as how to maintain students’ abilities to participate in her class for any who may have to undergo quarantine or isolation and transition her class fully online — potentially overnight. 

Miles said knowing the parameters of UNC’s off-ramps would be helpful in planning so she can have a better idea of what worsening conditions may trigger a transition to fully online instruction, in order to more smoothly shift her plans.

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To mitigate the risks of COVID-19, Miles said she has decided to divide her class, which is capped at 40 students, into two groups of no more than 20 students to reduce the number of people in her classroom at any one time. 

If a student refuses to wear a mask in class, UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that graduate students can ask the student to leave the classroom — and if the student refuses to leave, graduate students will have the option to suspend instruction.  

With less than five days before the first day of class, LoCicero, who will be teaching Introduction to Economics Honors, had not been assigned a classroom to teach in. He said this is an example of the “million little things that have fallen through” in UNC’s plan to reopen. 

By Saturday, LoCicero had been assigned a classroom space, and the course had officially been designated as HyFlex.

Opposition ignored

Throughout the summer, many graduate students voiced opposition to UNC’s reopening.

Two particularly active graduate student-affiliated groups who opposed the reopening as unsafe and jeopardizing lives include the Anti-Racist Grad Worker Collective at UNC and UNC’s chapter of UE Local 150 — the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. LoCicero and Knorek are members of UE150’s graduate worker subchapter. 

The groups created petitions, wrote statements, hosted a town hall, organized a “die-in” and coordinated email and social media campaigns over the past few months.

Knorek, a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the UNC System, said she foresees the influx of thousands of students to campus for the fall semester being a “disaster from top to bottom.”

“It's clear that they do not have any idea what they're doing and they keep talking about these off-ramps and this Roadmap, which I think is an inherently stupid metaphor for literally uncharted territory,” Knorek said. “This is an unprecedented global crisis.” 

Julio Gutierrez, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, said the University’s decision to reopen campus and teach in person was made in May with the assumption that COVID-19 cases would be at a lower level. Gutierrez said he believes the continued high volume of COVID-19 cases should have caused the University to cancel its reopening plans and pivot to entirely remote instruction to prioritize human lives.

“We are right at the peak of the first wave still, so that's the worst possible time to reopen,” Gutierrez said. “So that just tells me that UNC's plan doesn't really match reality and their persistence in starting this semester with in-person classes has nothing to do with public health.”  

With all the risks of reopening, Gutierrez, who will be leading recitations remotely this fall, said he believes it would have been viable and best for the University to opt for entirely remote instruction from the start, given that reopening could cost lives.

“I think this is a really pivotal moment where we all need to recognize who the decision-makers on our campus are right now and who holds the power over our lives and well-being — and the importance of flipping that and giving the power back to the people who actually make campus run — including the workers, undergraduates, graduate students and faculty,” Standish, a member of the Anti-Racist Grad Worker Collective at UNC, said.