Around 50 people “died” on the Pentacrest on Thursday to protest the University of Iowa’s COVID-19 policies.
The die-in protest was organized by Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS), the union that represents graduate student workers at the university. Protesters laid down on the Pentacrest’s sidewalk, as COGS members drew chalk outlines of their bodies.
“COGS is here to demand better COVID policies across campus. Things like vaccine and mask mandates as well as creating alternatives for teaching and learning online, other things that will save lives, prevent disease,” said Caleb Klipowicz, a doctoral student in Sociocultural Anthropology.
Klipowicz led everyone in chants.
“What do we want!” he shouted.
“Mask mandates!” they replied.
“When do we want it?”
“And if we don’t get it, shut it down!” Klipowicz said.
Protesters took turns at the megaphone sharing their experiences, both as instructors and students. Rob Ascher, a MFA student in Theater Arts, spoke about the first day of class last week.
“In the rhetoric department, I come in, and there’s not a single student wearing a mask,” he said. “That ain’t right. I go into my classroom. If it’s a good day, half of my students are wearing a mask.”
“There’s a football game this weekend. That’s a super spreader and a half.”
“We have to get back to normal,” shouted Johnathan Bartholomew, who was watching the protest. “It’s up to freedom. We have freedom in America. This is terrible that you want to force [people] to wear a mask.”
Mayor Bruce Teague issued a mask mandate for Iowa City on Aug. 19, in response to the surge in new COVID-19 cases caused by the spread of the Delta variant in Iowa. The mandate, which is scheduled to be in place until Sept. 30, requires people to wear face masks when in indoor public settings. It specifically cited “University of Iowa academic buildings and business offices” among the locations where masks are required.
In response to the city’s mask mandate, the university said in a statement it would not change its policy of only encouraging, but not requiring, masks.
“The University of Iowa strongly encourages the use of face masks on campus, especially in all classroom settings and during in-person office hours,” according to the statement. “However, as a state agency, we are expected to comply with state law and the guidance of our governing body, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa.”
The Iowa Board of Regents controls policy at all three of Iowa’s public universities, and has decided to prevent UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa from requiring masks, a change from previous policy. The board had required masks be worn indoors at the universities, but on May 20 eliminated that requirement, saying that “significant improvements in the management of COVID-19” had made mask requirements unnecessary.
The regents have also decided to prevent the three universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. The prohibition does not apply to other vaccinations. All three public universities in Iowa require people to submit documentation showing they have had two MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations in order to enroll.
On April 14, Iowa Board of Regents President Michael Richards said that “while we continue to strongly encourage members of our campus community to get vaccinated, the regents universities will not be mandating vaccinations for any student [or] employees now or for the 2021-22 academic year.” That same day, however, Grinnell College announced it would require students enrolling in the fall to have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
“The efficacy of vaccines, as well as expanded vaccine eligibility and availability, allows us to address the higher risk of transmission in a communal living environment and affirms this additional step to protect the health of our community,” Grinnell, a private college, told students in an email about the vaccination requirement.
UI is the only Big Ten university that does not require masks on campus. Six of the conference’s 13 schools also require vaccinations. More than 800 colleges and universities around the country have COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
UI is not regularly testing students and staff, but is participating in a nationwide program that monitors the amount of virus present in wastewater.
Since the beginning of August, data shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases are increasing in Johnson County. The county provides three reasons for this recent trend:
- Delta Variant community transmission is HIGH (spreads more easily and may cause 2x as many infections)
- Larger groups of people are gathering indoors without masks
- Return of K-12 and UI in-person activities without masking requirements or the ability to socially distance
“As a student worker, I’m just appalled by the lack of care and leadership they’ve shown,” Glenn Houlihan, who teaches American studies, said about UI’s administration and the Board of Regents.
“In every class I teach there could be someone with COVID, and I don’t know it. And that puts me at risk, my family at risk, that puts my loved ones at risk. I’ve only taught one Friday so far, which is three classes in a row. And in the middle class, one person out of 25 decided to wear a mask.”
UI is currently relying on students and employees to self-report any positive tests. According to a UI FAQ on pandemic policies, instructors can encourage masks and vaccines in the classroom, “as long as all sides have a voice in the conversation.”
“The university is just leaving its students, its teachers, its professors, its other precarious workers, janitorial staff, catering staff to fend for themselves in the midst of a deadly pandemic. They don’t care for their workers,” Houlihan said.
“That was immensely distressing. It makes me feel upset teaching. I don’t feel safe in my workplace. It puts us all in almost a perpetual state of stress.”
But not everyone on the Pentacrest agreed with protesters. As students poured out of Macbride and Schaeffer Hall, many unmasked individuals walked past and scoffed.
Bartholomew, who shouted about freedom during the protest, clarified his objections after it was over, insisting that personal freedom is more important than public health precautions, which he believes the government shouldn’t have the authority to require.
“I’m not anti-mask. I’m not anti-science. I’m not anti-vaccine. But it comes down to freedom, and it’s not just a slippery slope requiring a mask mandate, it’s pushing us over the ledge,” he said. “What’s the point of having my life if I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions? I’d rather die if we can’t have freedom.”
Violette Bray, a recent international studies graduate from the University of Wyoming, thinks that UI’s policies do not go far enough to protect the students.
“I think it’s really just evident that the university really doesn’t care about its students between how they’re dealing with sexual assault cases and then this, masks and COVID,” she said, referencing the sexual assault allegations against Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI). “They’re really just not doing anything to advocate for their students, and they need to step it up.”
UI has also phased out its Temporary Work Alternative Arrangement (TAWA) and Temporary Alternative Learning Arrangement (TALA) programs.
“This is just a hotspot waiting to happen. We’ve already had students with COVID tell us,” Klipowicz said. Klipowicz is teaching a course on the origins of infectious disease this semester.
“I teach a class of about 70 students, all in the same room, windows are shut. And first day I actually walked around handing out masks. Several students said no,” he said.
Prior to the protest, COGS released a list of demands to the UI administration and the Board of Regents.
We issue the following set of demands voted on by COGS/UE Local 896 membership as necessary to provide a safe and healthy work environment on campus:
- Immediately Reinstate the Temporary Work Alternative Arrangement (TAWA) and Temporary Alternative Learning Arrangement (TALA) Processes.
These are no-cost options that enable students and instructors to opt-out of in-person situations. The processes should be streamlined so that anyone who chooses to avoid face-to-face interactions at this time may do so.
- Report COVID case counts and make them widely available to the entire campus community.
The university needs to report COVID case numbers at least twice weekly. Right now, the university will only be updating COVID cases once a week and not sending out that information by email like last academic year. Reporting numbers only once a week is insufficient to assess the rate of COVID transmission. These numbers should be made available to all students, staff, and faculty through email.
- Allow for flexibility in schedules for graduate workers who are parents or caretakers.
With public schools in Iowa returning to in-person teaching without mask requirements, it is likely that disruptions to classroom schedules will occur. This is already happening in states where the school year has already started.
- Pause all non-essential in-person events, and create hybrid options for all essential events.
Sanctioning events that can spread disease across campus and the community is irresponsible. Pause these events until rates of local transmission return to safe levels.
- Mandate masks inside campus buildings.
Along with vaccinations, mask-wearing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to slow the spread of outbreaks. Additionally, while the vaccines are highly effective, they are not 100% effective against all variants and scientists believe that vaccine effectiveness is significantly lower six months after vaccination.
- Require vaccinations of students, faculty, and staff, and/or mandate weekly testing of those who are not vaccinated and do not have medical or religious reason for this.
Like other universities in the Big 10, and hundreds of others, the university should require students, faculty, and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. If this cannot be implemented immediately, the alternative measure of frequent, regular testing of the unvaccinated is a must.
- Conduct contact investigation of all documented COVID-19 cases.
Outbreaks will happen. Currently, the state health department is working against our collective well-being by refusing to conduct investigations in public schools. Take an active role in mitigating spread of the highly contagious Delta variant on campus and in the community and initiate contact investigations of cases, related to campus.
- Put a plan in place for the provision of technical, pedagogical, and financial support for graduate workers in the case of emergencies, or a transition from in person to remote teaching. With this, provide clear thresholds for when such a transition may happen.
Everyone would like for this semester to be a “return to normal.” Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to think that this is a guarantee. Instead, we need guarantees from the university that we will be able to do our jobs and deal with emergencies or a transition. Furthermore, we need transparency from the university about what to expect.
- Communicate in a clear and timely manner with international graduate workers throughout the semester about travel and visa restrictions, vaccination regulations, and testing.
International graduate workers have been under particular stress during the pandemic due to national and international travel restrictions that have complicated work and personal life. Resources should be directed towards providing transparency wherever possible to this group.
- Include COGS/UE Local 896, graduate bodies of shared governance, and diverse graduate organizations in planning, decision-making, and information dissemination regarding operations at the University of Iowa for the 2021-2022 academic year.
We have done much of this in the past year. Mechanisms are in place. Taking action now will save lives and make the transition to the semester smoother, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past and waiting until the crisis is upon us.
“The pandemic is far from over,” Houlihan said. “This isn’t sustainable.”