Advocacy Group Pushes Back at UT's Reopening Strategy

UT grad students: COVID-19 plans are "inadequate" and "dangerous"

Underpaid@UT protest at an on-campus action in May (Image via Twitter / Underpaid@UT)

As the University of Texas at Austin continues its march toward reopening in August, graduate students are concerned by what some see as an "inadequate and in some ways dangerous plan" to reopen the Forty Acres amid the COVID-19 crisis.

In May, Underpaid@UT, a graduate student worker advocacy organization, drafted an open letter to UT leadership – outgoing President Greg Fenves, interim President Jay Hartzell, interim Provost Daniel Jaffe, and Graduate School Dean Mark Smith – with eight demands for university officials to support and protect graduate student workers, as well as the campus community at large, in light of the pandemic.

"As graduate student workers, we were on the frontlines of implementing the university's response to this pandemic, from transitioning courses to online formats to shutting down laboratories and performing COVID-19 related research," read the letter. "Likewise, our work will be key to implementing startup procedures." Demands address funding extensions; the creation of post-graduate employment opportunities; a guarantee of full health insurance coverage; hazard pay for in-person instruction; financial and legal support for international students; and reopening considerations, among others. Underpaid@UT staged an on-campus action May 29 to draw attention to the letter. They say UT has not acknowledged their demands nor Underpaid@UT directly; however, Smith issued a response in early June.

Following Smith's message, Underpaid@UT addressed a follow-up letter to university officials on June 24, reiterating its demands, while also urging UT to "begin seriously planning to move a majority of classes online" due to a surge in COVID cases locally and nationally. A week later UT announced its fall reopening plan, including a mask mandate and flexible learning options for in-person, online, or hybrid classes.

Speaking on behalf of Underpaid@UT, Rebecca Johnston, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department, told us the reopening plan not only compounds the group's concerns, but is in many ways "troubling and vague." Specifically, a "decision trigger" for UT to reconsider its reopening status is "student death," which could prompt a "full transition to remote learning," according to guidance found on UT's reopening website, Protect Texas Together. "We're talking about [how] this trigger of student death will be a metric to decide whether to go full[y] online or not," said Johnston. "I can't get that out of my head."

“I would want to know if [UT] talked about how many of these students, you know, dying is going to really trigger us to go online, and why we’re opening if this is really the best that we can do.” – UT student Rebecca Johnston

To meet Underpaid@UT's demands before the semester begins, Johnston called for changes to UT's health and mitigation plan, including mandatory and ongoing testing for students returning to campus. According to Protect Texas Together's guidance, current modeling suggests that 75% of students in dorms may develop COVID-19 symptoms and need to be tested and quarantined. If all students living on campus are sharing double rooms, UT predicts 5,909 instances of student self-quarantine or self-isolation during the academic year, according to the guidance. "I would want to know if [UT] talked about how many of these students, you know, dying is going to really trigger us to go online, and why we're opening if this is really the best that we can do," said Johnston.

Kate Cronin, a doctoral student in the Radio-Television-Film department, said that while Underpaid@UT's long-term goal remains fair and equitable compensation for graduate students – a demand that goes back to before COVID-19 – there's now the immediate goal of pivoting all classes online, which she sees as possibly preventing deaths on campus. Still, an online learning experience resurfaces earlier concerns about fair compensation for grad students, who Cronin said didn't receive extra pay for helping transition classes online at the beginning of the pandemic. "We're being expected to drop everything and provide these incredible online courses for students to guarantee that student customers are happy with their educational experience, but aren't being paid for any of the extra work that that entails."

In a response emailed to the Chronicle regarding Underpaid@UT's letters, Joey Williams, director of communications for UT's Office of the Executive Vice President, said, "Throughout the 2020 fall planning process, issues affecting graduate students have been an important focus of the broader strategy and approach," and acknowledged the nuanced issues unique to UT's graduate student community. "The Gradu­ate School leadership has been working with the campus to address many issues, including ones shared in a student petition through updates sent to the campus. Graduate School leadership works with the Graduate Student Assembly officers, who provide feedback and input on communication to the graduate student body." (Underpaid@UT identifies as an informal offshoot of the Graduate Student Assembly.)

"If [UT] had made a decision to go full online early, then we could have spent the whole summer planning a really fantastic undergraduate online experience for students," Johnston said, adding that the university needs to "increase transparency and accountability and take the burden of death off of the individual for actions that are based on the university's decision-making. When people start dying in the fall, the school needs to be ready to take responsibility for that."

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Underpaid@UT, COVID-19, Mark Smith, Greg Fenves, Jay Hartzell, Rebecca Johnston, Protect Texas Together, Kate Cronin, Joey Williams

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