Signed, Sick in Iowa

University of Iowa students and faculty members stage “sickout” to protest campus reopening plan.

September 3, 2020
 
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Faculty, staff and students at the University of Iowa staged a “sickout” Wednesday, the latest in a series of escalating calls to end face-to-face instruction during the pandemic.

“I feel so utterly powerless about a situation very quickly and clearly getting out of control,” said a teaching assistant in world languages, literatures and cultures who participated in the sickout and did not want to be identified by name for fear of disciplinary repercussions.

Megan Knight, associate professor of instruction in rhetoric, participated in the sickout, including via this email autoreply:

I am away from my desk in recognition of today's “sick-out” event. This event is intended to communicate to the UI administration the urgent need for all classes to be moved to an online format immediately, to avoid furthering the public health crisis currently unfolding in Iowa City.

Knight said in an interview that there is “really a lack of leadership here and real confusion on my part as to, ‘OK, who’s in charge here? Who’s going to make decisions based on science and what we know about public health?’ It really feels like we’re at sea.”

The university publishes only self-reported positive COVID-19 tests from faculty, staff and students three times per week. On Monday, the most recent day for which numbers were available, there were 220 new student cases, for a total of 1,142 since the beginning of the semester on Aug. 18. There were three new employee cases, bringing the total to 16 this term.

As of Wednesday, Iowa City -- where the university is located -- was the fourth-worst U.S. metro hot spot for new coronavirus cases, relative to population, over the last two weeks, according to this New York Times database. (Ames, Iowa, home to Iowa State University, was the second hottest spot.)

Unlike many states, Iowa did not issue a stay-at-home order during the pandemic and has not issued a mask mandate. In recent weeks, Republican governor Kim Reynolds ordered bars and nightclubs in six counties, including those surrounding the University of Iowa and Iowa State, to close through Sept. 20. In so doing, Reynolds cited rising cases among young adults. Those 19 to 24 years old accounted for 23 percent of all new positive coronavirus tests over the past two weeks statewide, according to the Ames Tribune. In Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, in particular, 19- to 24-year-olds account for 69 percent of positive tests in during that same period.

The university said in a statement that it is “doing its best to provide a world-class education during an unprecedented pandemic.”

Campus leaders are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and county health officials, and the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa, the statement said. Faculty and staff members, meanwhile, “have responded with incredible agility, thoughtfulness and grit and we are grateful for their efforts to support our students in person and online.”

The university declined to comment on the sickout specifically but said, “We acknowledge individuals’ concerns about in-person instruction, but we have also received emails from faculty and graduate students who prefer to teach in person.” Iowa also fielded phone calls and emails “from parents and students advocating for face-to-face instruction.”

Internally, the university discouraged participation in the sickout. John Keller, dean of the Graduate College, and Kevin Kregel, the provost, wrote an email to the members of the graduate student union on Tuesday, saying, “While we acknowledge your concerns about in-person instruction, we strongly disagree with your manner of expressing those concerns. We respectfully remind your members of their obligation to deliver instruction as assigned, and to provide appropriate notice of absences due to illness.”

The email listed the university's various virus mitigation strategies, including mandatory mask wearing on campus, designated “instructor zones,” decreased student density and enhanced learning and disinfection practices.

“We acknowledge that this is a challenging period for everyone, and we must remain mindful of our core mission to serve the educational needs of our students,” the administrators wrote. “We sincerely hope that in the future, your organization will employ other means of expression to prevent disruption to the educational progress of our students.”

Iowa reopened campus with a blend of online, hybrid and in-person classes.

While many graduate students are participating in the sickout, it was organized by a mix of 20 or so undergraduate and graduate students and faculty and staff members who are not affiliated with any particular group. Organizers said Wednesday that they were responding to a campus leadership "vacuum." As of midafternoon, they'd logged 864 participants, mostly undergraduates. Some 19 percent identified as faculty, staff and TAs.

The graduate student union affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America neither planned nor endorsed the protest.

In a public response to Keller and Kregel, the union wrote, “We want to assure you that UE Local 896 COGS did not plan and will not sanction this event. However, we are glad you are finally engaging with us. Throughout the summer, COGS has attempted to communicate with the administration while being left out of response and planning teams dealing with COVID-19.”

A Long Line of Efforts

Other students and faculty members say they tried to persuade administrators against face-to-face instruction this summer, as state case counts began to climb, to no avail. Campus student government organizations wrote to Iowa president Bruce Harreld in August that “the persistent increase in COVID-19 cases in Iowa, and specifically Johnson County, has become troubling, especially as most students are scheduled to move back to Iowa City in the coming weeks. While we deeply miss our traditional learning environments and collegiate social experiences, the rising cases and risks associated with COVID-19 make returning to campus an alarming prospect.”

Several hundred instructors, including graduate instructors, also pledged their commitment “to providing the safest and highest-quality educational experience currently possible for our students -- which right now means planning to deliver our fall courses online.” Petitions for remote instruction continue to circulate.

Iowa surveyed faculty members and TAs in early summer as to their preferences for fall instruction. While many said they preferred to teach remotely, those who wished to do so had to apply for special permission based on a compelling health reason, other than the pandemic, such as a pre-existing condition.

Knight said she obtained permission to teach online through an awkward process that involved disclosing private health information. Some of her colleagues weren't as fortunate, though, she said, and are expected to teach in small rooms where it's impossible to practice social distancing, despite the university's promise to limit class sizes.

"My concerns are not for my personal situation," she said. "I'm concerned for my colleagues and graduate students having to go into classes where there really isn't enough space and the conditions aren't really appropriate."

She added, "We know we can teach online. We know it's possible."

The TA in world languages, literatures and cultures said the class she teaches was supposed to be in person, but she decided to hold it unofficially online anyway -- in part because she’s experienced the death of a student before, prior to COVID-19, found it traumatic and didn’t "feel it was moral to put anyone in a situation where that could happen again."

Most of her peers who were supposed to teach face-to-face this term have taken their classes online, as well, she said, as some of their students have gotten sick with COVID-19.

“From what I hear from other TAs, it seems like most students' learning is actually more impeded by having COVID than by doing online classes,” the TA said, adding that her students are also worried about contracting the virus. She emphasized that the university is tracking only student-reported cases, meaning many more cases may be going undetected.

Why the sickout? The TA said it’s necessary because an in-person protest doesn’t feel “viable,” all things considered.

Joseph Yockey, professor of law and president of the Faculty Senate at Iowa, said via email that he didn’t participate in the sickout, “nor was Faculty Senate leadership involved in any of the planning discussions surrounding it.”

As for the senate’s involvement in Iowa’s reopening, Yockey said that the “presidents of the faculty, student and staff shared governance groups are currently in discussions with central administration about how we can become more closely integrated into the decision-making process surrounding the campus reopening. I feel confident that the conversation is moving in a good direction, but this is a fluid situation, and our strategies will be guided by what the public health data shows over the next few days.”

David M. Cwiertny, William D. Ashton Professor and director of graduate studies in civil and environmental engineering, said he made his graduate-level course on Wednesday evening optional, in honor of the sickout. While the course has been offered online for years and is online again this fall, Cwiertny said that many of his untenured colleagues “feel vulnerable about their positions” and are unable to exercise the kind of "personal choice" regarding instruction that’s been a buzz term around campus this summer.

“So to me, this is about equity,” he said. “Our campus has struggled with diversity, equity and inclusion issues for some time. In this case, there is an undue burden being placed on some of the more vulnerable faculty, staff and students at Iowa, and I don't think that is right. It runs counter to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion that we claim to be trying to promote on campus.”

Going forward, Cwiertny said he wants to see more testing and “more open and clear communication about what the plans are for UI going forward. What are the specific metrics we are using to make decisions about when we will need to go fully online to help stamp out the spread of COVID?”

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