Graduate employees protest UI’s lack of COVID-19 precautions

Members+of+the+Graduate+Employees%E2%80%99+Organization+protest+outside+of+the+Henry+Administration+Building+on+Thursday+morning.+The+group+demands+the+University+take+responsibility+for+its+teaching+staff+during+the+COVID-19+pandemic.

Photo Courtesy of GEO at UIUC #ILLatIllinois Facebook Page

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization protest outside of the Henry Administration Building on Thursday morning. The group demands the University take responsibility for its teaching staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Alex Chang and Willie Cui

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization protested outside of the Henry Administration Building Thursday morning, demanding that the University take more responsibility and care for its teaching staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Grad workers and undergrad students are being exposed to COVID-19 in classes, and the University has no notification system for that,” said Lesley Owens, member of the COVID-19 Impact Bargaining and a co-president of the GEO. 

Instead of relying on the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District or the Safer Illinois app, the GEO wants the University to implement a system for notifying instructors and students when a student in one of their classes tests positive for COVID-19. The University allows faculty to check students’ Safer Illinois Building Status in the classroom; however, students are not required to disclose their vaccination status to faculty

In particular, the GEO believes that exposure notifications from the Safer Illinois app are ineffective at properly tracing in-class exposure.

Owens notes that the Safer Illinois app only generates an exposure notification after spending two hours or more with someone infected, “which means that pretty much every class there could be someone sitting there with breakthrough infections,” unaware.

“The notification system that we are advocating for is based on enrollment,” Owens said. “So if a student tests positive, all of their classes and all of their classmates in person are told so the instructors don’t have to do it and the student doesn’t have to do it.”

In addition, the GEO also demands that the University give instructors more latitude in choosing the format of their courses.

“If you request to move online, it depends on your department,” Owens said. “I know people in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences whose requests were turned down for no reason, they were just told, ‘No, you have to be in person,’ even though they had major concerns about teaching in person.”

This inconsistency in COVID-19 policy is a major source of contention for the GEO, Owens said. Each department can set their own policy, and there is a lack of direction from the University on how to handle COVID-19.

“I have heard in my own department of people being threatened with discipline for taking their classes online,” Owens said. “In fact, if we hear that a student in our class tested positive, the University tells us not to tell any of those students and to keep going to class as usual.”

The GEO also believes there aren’t enough Wellness Support Advocates checking Safer Illinois status for students, forcing instructors to waste class time checking statuses and potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 in the process.

Over the summer, the University stated that WSAs will still be conducting daily spot checks across campus at various classroom buildings.

“Certain buildings may also choose to hire their own WSAs for the semester,” the Massmail reads.

“The University wants to claim things are going great, but we know that they are not and a lot of people on campus aren’t testing,” Owens said. “And we know that there are breakthrough infections circulating that are not being reported.”

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