As of this week, there are over 130,000 confirmed deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19. Cases are on the rise across the nation as well as in Iowa specifically. Johnson County has made national news because the overwhelming majority of new cases have been among people under the age of forty.
President Harreld and Special Assistant Fuentes’s plans do not take these current circumstances into account. They have outlined plans for the fall semester focused on social distancing, basic PPE for students, and face-to-face instruction for small classes like discussion and lab sections. Not only do these measures shift disproportionate risk to graduate students and non-tenure track faculty, they are likely to turn the university campus into a massive super-spreader zone, a risk the university tacitly acknowledged when it presented housing contracts for the fall that free it from liability for any COVID-19 infections in university housing.
One basic fact of COVID-19 transmission has become clear: when people who do not live together gather indoors, the risk of transmission skyrockets. This risk is reduced with the presence of masks and other PPE but still remains present. Although the COVID-19 death rates among people under 40 remain relatively low, the large number of undergraduates and graduate students at the university means a sizable outbreak would likely result in some level of student and worker incapacitation and/or death. COGS as an institution is dedicated to the safety and well-being of all graduate workers at the University of Iowa and recognizes that people of color, particularly those from Black and Latino communities, are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 — a nationwide trend borne out here in Johnson County. This evidence illustrates that systemic racism can produce extreme health disparities in Johnson County, which will only intensify if the University of Iowa commits to face-to-face instruction in the fall.
The only way to guarantee the safety and well-being of the graduate community, as well as the greater University and Iowa City communities, is to remain fully online this fall. This week, the Iowa City school board decided the Iowa City Community School District would begin their school year online, recognizing it is not safe to reopen classrooms. If plans remain for University classes to meet in-person, this would further impact graduate students who have children enrolled in the local public school system. If the University continues with its plan to open in person, this will demonstrate that its priorities are purely financial and not related to the health and safety of its students, particularly Black or Latino students, or the wider community.
In addition to the current public health crisis we now face, the Trump administration through Immigration and Customs Enforcement has clearly shown its desire to target international students for deportation. Thankfully, the Trump administration and ICE were forced to rescind their harmful July 6th directive that would have revoked F-1 visas for international students at U.S. universities if those students were only enrolled in online classes. While it was a victory for students continuing their education, incoming students have little or no guidance regarding their visas. However, the Trump administration may work to find other ways to attack the visa status of international students and target them for deportation. It is in this context, and for the sake of all student safety and well-being, that we issue the following demands:
- The University Administration, led by President Bruce Herrald, must utilize all possible methods to protect international students from ICE and any other deportation organizations. The methods they will use should be clearly outlined and made known to the international student community at the University.
- The University must move all Fall semester classes online to avoid the potential public health disaster that could accompany a fall reopening.
- The Iowa Board of Regents and the state leadership must enact all of the above policies and initiatives at all Iowa Universities to guarantee the safety and wellness of all Iowa students, regardless of their citizenship status
It is important to note that the Trump administration is doing everything within their power to stop universities from moving to all online instruction, despite universities’ efforts to prevent further deaths from COVID-19. As part of this effort, the Trump administration attempted to force many colleges and universities into the position of choosing between public health and the rights of their international students to remain in the U.S. This was and is a false choice, and COGS as an organization stands opposed to the blatant white supremacy and xenophobia embodied by the Trump administration, as well as the dangerous decision to reopen in-person instruction during a global pandemic. While these may seem like two different issues, COGS believes we can and must fight them both simultaneously to ensure the safety and well-being of all members of the University of Iowa community. If the University is truly committed to the Core Values they espouse, they will join us in this fight.