URBANA – The union for graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wants most instruction to stay online through the fall semester — as a precaution against the coronavirus.
U of I officials released a report last week produced by a university-appointed task force that outlines possible scenarios for the fall semester, including a mix of in-person and online instruction.
Karla Sanabria Veaz, a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, says the union wants a seat at the table for discussions on how the university will reopen in the fall.
“What we’re saying is before deciding if we should open libraries or other facilities besides housing, or even the requirements of housing on its own, we want to have a say in how these decisions are being made,” Sanabria Veaz says.
The Campus Faculty Association, an advocacy group of about 200 U of I tenured and tenure-track professors, issued a statement last month saying they don’t believe the vast majority of students should return to campus this fall, fearing that their return may lead to an outbreak of COVID-19.
In their statement, the GEO says “maintaining online instruction does not mean that students should not return to campus and continue safe activities.”
While the union supports maintaining online learning, Sanabria Veaz says “some students, for example, may not have internet resources in their hometowns,” and the campus may be a safe place for them to learn.
“What we do understand is this process needs to be done following strict regulations from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” Sanabria Veaz says.
The union is calling for a “people first” approach that prioritizes the safety and financial well-being of students and staff. That includes demands that the university continue to provide pay and benefits to employees, guarantee there won’t be lay-offs and provide the proper protective equipment to workers.
The GEO statement reads: “we will reject any solution put forward by the University that does not guarantee these protections for workers.”
Sanabria Vaez says the union is also still fighting the university on a more than 30% increase in student health insurance premiums, which was announced in March.
A U of I spokesperson did not return to a request for comment. Previous statements from university officials say they believe they can weather multi-million dollar financial losses due to the pandemic by not filling positions, temporarily reducing pay for top university officials, and reducing other expenses, including travel costs. Officials say they have no plans to furlough or lay off employees.
Sanabria Vaez says the university would benefit from inviting the GEO into discussions regarding the fall semester. She says new perspectives could lead to better solutions.
“We want to participate in the administrative decisions that impact our lives. We don’t want to just give feedback to a document,” she says.
U of I officials are expected to announce a decision about the fall semester this month.