Letter to the editor: TAs are not disposable

University of Iowa graduate student workers and supporters gather on the Pentacrest to protest better benefits. Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

By Caleb Klipowicz, Iowa City

The current plan to re-open the University of Iowa for the fall semester disproportionately puts graduate workers in harm’s way.

Instead of canceling classes or continuing online-only instruction, the U of I announced that classes of fewer than 50 students will be held in-person. The move, which includes discussion sections of larger Gen. Ed. courses, is supposed to ensure all first-year students have at least one “face-to-face” class. However, these policies put graduate student workers like myself at the greatest risk for contracting COVID-19. In other words, the U of I is treating graduate workers like plastic gloves and paper masks — disposable tools for their attempt to return to business as usual.

After shouldering an enormous load of the work transitioning the UI to online-only instruction last spring, graduate workers are now told to come back to the classroom without adequate plans in place for our safety. For instance, teaching and research assistants work in heavily shared office and lab spaces and now have to coordinate schedules to get “safe” access to basic resources for their work and education. In the classroom, things aren’t much better. The UI currently has not explained how they will accommodate up to 50 students, six feet apart, in dozens of classes simultaneously around campus. Despite claiming to follow CDC cleaning recommendations, there are no current plans to sanitize desks, labs, offices or classrooms in between classes. And while UI admins expect students to simply comply with PPE requirements, it will be up to TAs to enforce these policies in the classroom and to handle students who refuse to do so. All this extra work comes without additional pay and on top of the assumption that graduate workers will fill the gaps made by layoffs and budget cuts elsewhere.

As I prepare to begin my fourth year as a graduate worker here at the U of I, I find this all deeply troubling. I was grateful when my department arranged a last-minute TA position for me after my research plans for this year were completely derailed by COVID. But now I fear that the administration’s poor choices will jeopardize my students’ health for an impossible learning environment. Imagine trying to hold a meaningful discussion about anything with 30-50 people, all spread out, with face masks, and the emotional toll of a global pandemic raging behind the scenes. My experience tells me that this would be far from the “high-quality education” administrators praise. And that’s if we can hold class safely. My worst nightmare is a student catching the virus or, God forbid, dying because they attended my Intro to Anthropology section.

If in-person instruction would be subpar at best and life-threatening at worst, why force this policy? The real motive is clear: the administration cares more about making money than about the health and safety of students and workers. In-person instruction means students are charged for full tuition on top of room and board. But the UI has to face the facts: the university is not a business, and this fall will not be business as usual. If they really want to “put people first” as they claim, they could take steps like moving back online until the pandemic ends, compensate graduate workers for our extra time and energy put in behind the scenes, reduce tuition and eliminate fees across the board. Until then, the U of I must remember this university only runs because of graduate workers in classrooms, labs and beyond. We are not disposable. We won’t stand by while they put our lives at risk to meet the bottom line.

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