On Jan. 11, a week before classes started for the University of Iowa’s spring semester, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) Local 896, the union representing UI grad students, sent a letter to the Iowa Board of Regents and UI administrators asking for classes to be conducted online for the first two weeks of the semester as one of a series of measures to help limit the spread of COVID-19 as thousands of students return to campus. That didn’t happen, but COGS has not given up on pushing for greater protections.
During a four-day period ending Jan. 21, a total of 275 UI students reported they had tested positive for COVID-19, as did 257 staff members. Because of Board of Regents policies, UI cannot require students or staff to be tested for COVID-19 infections, and must rely on self-reported information.
Even before students began returning to Iowa City, Johnson County was experiencing a massive surge in COVID-19 cases. Speaking to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors last week, Johnson County Public Health (JCPH) Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said there had been approximately 2,800 newly confirmed cases of the virus in the county during the previous seven days, which he characterized as “just beyond what we’ve ever seen.”
Following Board of Regents regulations, UI and the two other state universities do not require COVID-19 vaccinations for staff or students (although other vaccinations are still required). The universities also do not require face masks in indoor settings or social distancing. Professors and other university employees are even severely limited in how they can speak about the pandemic to students.
UI is the only school in the Big 10 Conference without any of these basic COVID-19 safety measures.
Like it did during the fall semester, UI is holding in-person classes. According to UI guidelines, an instructor can request permission to switch a class from in-person to online “if there is significant student absenteeism [in the class] or if the instructor needs to isolate or quarantine.” To do this, an instructor must submit an “Instructor Modality Change form” detailing the reasons for the request. If the university administration approves, their classes can be held online for two weeks.
“Our Board of Regents and the university decided to follow the same protocol they did in the fall, which is the worst in the Big 10 compared to other institutions, as far as the fewest safety measures in place,” said Caleb Klipowicz, the press and publicity chair for COGS. “At the national level, it’s sort of been a failure. At the state level, it’s been a failure. At the university level, it’s been a failure.”
COGS’s full list of demands includes:
- Move all classes and meetings online for at least the first two weeks of the semester. A return to in-person meetings should only happen following the principles of shared governance and with the express approval from the Faculty Senate, Graduate and Professional Student Government, Undergraduate Student Government, and on-campus labor unions.
- Institute a 3 percent threshold so that if, at any time, 3 percent or more of the University community test positive for COVID-19, all in-person activities (e.g. classes, university-sponsored events, meetings, etc.) will be halted for at least one week.
- Provide all campus staff, students, and instructors with free at-home COVID-19 testing kits and high-quality PPE (e.g. N95 or KN95 respirators) on a weekly basis through the end of the semester. Make additional PPE and testing kits available at a central location on campus.
- Require re-entry testing and a negative COVID-19 test result before joining in-person classes. According to the CDC’s latest testing guidelines: “IHEs where not everyone is fully vaccinated should conduct diagnostic or screening testing of students, faculty, and staff” (Guidance for Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs)”, cdc.gov).
- Conduct campus-wide contact tracing and alert instructors when positive cases self-report in their classrooms.
- Maintain the 14-day quarantine requirements for all positive cases and provide adequate housing for people in isolation.
- Conduct surveillance testing on all students living on campus and University-affiliated housing (e.g. sororities and fraternities) at least once per week for the duration of the semester.
Board of Regents and UI respond
The Board of Regents emailed COGS reiterating its current COVID-19 guidelines. The board said UI “plans to maintain its current academic calendar,” pointed to the possibility of classes being temporarily conducted online if an Instructor Modality Change Form is approved and said UI will continue testing in cooperation with JCPH.
“UI students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to self-report any positive test result for COVID-19,” the email said. “UI encourages all faculty, students, and staff to follow the isolation and quarantine guidance published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).”
UI’s Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel emailed all instructors before the semester began. Though not responding directly to COGS, the email said that UI will have health stations throughout campus to provide medical-grade and KN95 masks. Classrooms will have hand sanitizer, wet wipe buckets and medical-grade masks. Instructors will also receive a daily report of students who may be absent from in-person, hybrid or online classes.
“These are things that they refused to do in the past, or said they couldn’t do in the past, and now they’re starting to make steps towards it. Not enough, but there is a step,” Klipowicz said. “They’re starting to recognize the issue I think, and give into our demands a little bit, but they’d never admit that.”
Kregel’s email said the university “strongly encourages” vaccinations, boosters and masks but will not require them in the classroom. However, face masks are required on Cambus buses and in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC).
Living in the Twilight Zone
But the Board of Regents and UI’s response has done little to ease the dejection and anxiety of the students and instructors.
“I really feel like it’s just a matter of time before everybody gets sick, without sounding doom and gloom,” said Todd Rhoades, a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Department of Dance.
He taught a yoga class in the fall semester with 54 people. He estimated that around 40 students wore masks at first, but by the midterm came, only around 15 did. In November, he had someone cover his class when his mother contracted COVID-19.
Rhoades is from Akron, Ohio, which he pointed out is “Trump country.” His mother was unvaccinated and had underlying heath issues.
“She believed the whole rhetoric,” he said. “She was a big Trump supporter, and believed it wasn’t a big thing.”
His mother went to a non-denominational church, where several members of the congregation had passed away from COVID-19. Her first symptoms appeared on Saturday. She was fatigued and wouldn’t wake up easily. The next day, she tested positive. On Monday, she was admitted into the hospital with low oxygen levels. A week later, she died.
“She was in the hospital. She was on oxygen. She couldn’t have any visitors at all. She was isolated. People didn’t understand, like her brother thought it was just like flu,” Rhoades said. “A lot of my extended family just thought, ‘Oh she’s going to get better. Like, you know, it’s just basically like flu symptoms.’”
His father, who is vaccinated, stayed with her as she passed away, along with his aunt and her husband. They all wore masks, shields, gloves and gowns. Rhoades and his brother couldn’t come in-person. Instead, they had a virtual visit.
“She couldn’t talk at all, but she was able to be responsive. And we basically through like a video chat said, ‘I love you, Mom. I’m gonna miss you. You are a great mom.’ And once we ended the call, she passed away 15 minutes later,” he said.
Around 100 people attended her funeral, but only a handful wore masks. Rhoades couldn’t understand why everyone was hugging and kissing without any precautions. Some people contracted COVID-19 at the funeral. Despite the death of his mother, he said his extended family still won’t get vaccinated or wear masks.
“I used to wonder like, ‘It’s gonna take someone to lose someone really close to them to change their behavior, or their view on COVID.’ And I’ve actually experienced that — it doesn’t. And that disturbs me to no end,” Rhoades said.
“I honestly cannot wrap my mind around anything. I think that’s the hardest, is, like, I haven’t fully grieved my mom just because nothing makes sense,” he continued. “Sometimes I just cry, and I get really, really upset and sad. And other times, I just get so angry and pissed off and frustrated.”
Rhoades told his students about his mother’s death, but when he resumed teaching, only five or six students were wearing masks.
“I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone,” he said. “Honestly, I feel like it’s a different dimension, or I’m living in a different reality than other people.”
Rhoades said he feels the Regents’ approach of allowing people to ignore COVID-19 precautions is undermining efforts to control the spread of the virus and endangering the health and safety of individuals and the community.
“It shouldn’t have ever gotten this bad, but it doesn’t need to continue. Some people are standing in my way to protect myself and to be safe,” he said. “That’s where the University of Iowa is. The Regents are totally standing in the way of safety for myself, safety for my teachers, the staff, my students.”
Glenn Houlihan, a first year Ph.D. student in the Department of American Studies, moved to Iowa City in August. While he loves the city, COVID-19 has overshadowed his experience as a student and instructor.
“It’s just sad to have, I guess, already quite a bitter taste in my mouth about UI,” he said. “We’ve had this huge wave of Omicron stretch across several areas. It’s hard to see past that. I would love to be excited about teaching.”
Houlihan taught three in-person classes last semester, where he said only between two and four students would wear masks on a good day. He commended the university for providing KN95 masks and notifying instructions when students are absent.
“Quite rightly, masks are required on campus transit, on visits to the university health. Why not the classrooms? Why not the place where COVID would clearly thrive and spread the most?” he said. “People are being completely let down by the university’s complete lack of care, lack of empathy. And yeah, for me it’s endlessly frustrating. I don’t understand it to be perfectly honest.”
While he prefers teaching in-person, Houlihan doesn’t feel there are enough safety measures in place that would prevent his classroom from becoming a “super-spreader event.” He’s managed to avoid contracting COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but even with the vaccine and booster, he feels like getting sick is inevitable.
“There’s just a lot of stress and anxiety to be honest about, you know, going and getting sick,” he said. “Staff and students, in a way as well, have really been just thrown to the wolves.”
E-pivot with or without university approval
Houlihan teaches three in-person classes this semester. He said he’s following COGS’s call for an e-pivot, in which instructors temporarily move their classes online for at least the first two weeks of the semester.
“We have tried time and time again — in dialogue with the Regents, in dialogue with deans — to encourage the university to change its mind, and to start enacting honestly the most simple, commonsense procedures. I don’t think we’re asking for a lot.”
Klipowicz said an e-pivot would give students and instructors time to get vaccinated, boosted, tested and stock up on N95 and KN95 masks. But without prior approval from the administration, an e-pivot violates UI policy requiring in-person instruction.
“As COGS, we maintain that the university is in violation of their own policy first, the policy that protects our health and safety. So until they do the steps that keep us safe, the only right thing to do is find other ways to get around it,” he said.
According to Klipowicz, COGS is worried administrators may retaliate and punish instructors if they move classes online to protect their health and the health of their students.
“We are going to be there for everyone who chooses to keep their class online, and we will do everything within our power to protect people from administrative retaliation,” he said.
Rhoades also prefers teaching in person, especially with classes like ballet and jazz dance that don’t translate well to instruction over Zoom. He’s grateful to teach in a large gym where everyone can social distance. Masks would make his classroom safer, but the university has only provided a clunky, plexiglass barrier on wheels, he said.
“Why are the Regents and the president so against basic safety measures?” Rhoades said. “Give people the bare minimum security and safety. In our contracts it always says that, you know, they put the health and needs of the faculty, staff and students above everything. And that’s not true.”