Graduate employees plant red flags on Main Quad to protest UI’s COVID-19 response


Cameron Krasucki

A sign and red flags are posted on the quad by GEO on Tuesday. Each red flags represents the amount of Covid-19 cases since Jan. 24.

By Ashley Gilbert and Willie Cui

The Graduate Employee Organization placed signs and red flags Tuesday on the Main Quad to represent each person who tested positive for COVID-19 at the University since the start of in-person instruction this semester. 

“UIUC admin isn’t keeping you safe,” one of the signs said. 

At the beginning of the year, the GEO circulated a petition demanding that the University require twice weekly testing for “all on-campus community members,” and provide a notification system for classroom and workplace exposures.

“We still don’t have required testing,” said Leslie Owens, doctoral student and co-president of the GEO. “We don’t have exposure notifications, and we haven’t been given adequate masks for teaching and learning in person. This is a major issue, and we need to draw people’s attention to it.”

The University responded to the petition in an email last Wednesday, saying the protocols that are currently in place make the campus the “safest environment in the area.”

“We believe that our multi-layered precautions and our COVID-19 testing ecosystem allow us to navigate these latest COVID-19 circumstances while continuing our in-person classes,” the email said.

According to Owens, there have been over 5,000 cases since the beginning of the year and nearly 1/10 of undergraduate students have tested positive. As of Tuesday, the positivity rate for the University in the last seven days is 4.76%

The University claimed in the email that class-by-class exposure notifications would be “not feasible” and “the data would be too incomplete and too delayed to add extra protection.”

In response, the GEO conducted their red flag protest on the Main Quad demanding safer working and learning environments. 

“We can’t just look at who’s dying from this disease,” Owens said. “We have to look at who is being disabled from the disease, whose lives are being disrupted. What instructors are experiencing massive overwork? What undergrad students are experiencing major disruptions to their learning?”

Owens stated that the University’s response to all of these issues was that they were doing a “great job” with the most recent outbreaks, and that this response is “not acceptable.”

According to Owens, the GEO has been demanding better COVID-19 policies from the University since last semester, but the University “has been ignoring them this entire academic year.”

“We started this fight in August of 2021, and it’s frankly infuriating that we’re still doing this,” Owens said.

In September 2020, the University of Michigan’s GEO went on strike over similar complaints. When asked about the possibility of a strike, Owens said the GEO “will do whatever our membership wants us to do.”

“Right now people are really worried,” Owens said. “People are getting exposed to COVID, and we know it’s not just a problem for grad workers. It’s a problem for all faculty, for all staff, for all undergrads. So, we are going to do what we need to do to keep people safe.”

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