“We will die on the line, or we will starve”: Graduate Assistants Worry about the Fall Semester

Graduate teaching and research assistants do not want to come back to campus and think that the university is prioritizing tuition money over their health and safety. 

In the beginning of July, COGS sent out a survey to all graduate workers to hear their thoughts and concerns about the fall semester. 165 graduate workers responded to the survey. At that time, 42% of respondents did not know whether their duties will include any in-person interaction in the fall; the same proportion of graduate workers (41%) said that they will have in-person contact in the fall. Only 14.6% of respondents knew that they will work online. 

84% of all respondents said that they are concerned about the fall semester. Their concerns fall in these broad categories: individual and community health and safety, compromised learning environment, additional and uncompensated work, and being excluded from decision making processes. Graduate assistants feel that they are in a very vulnerable place — they have barely any institutional power, and in-person teaching will mostly fall on them:

 “I’m extremely concerned that I’ll be forced to put my health at risk in the classroom. Given that we barely make enough money to pay our bills, it’s enraging that we’ll be disproportionately shouldering the burden of in-person teaching. We have the least power to push back to protect ourselves, and the University is exploiting this. I’m also worried that speaking out against in-person teaching (and in favor of workers’ rights and safety) – even if my opinions match experts’ recommendations – will get me “blacklisted” or put me in danger of losing my funding” (graduate TA)

Afraid to aid community spread

Graduate assistants are worried that proposed health and safety measures are not good enough. They are worried that people will not keep proper social distance in university buildings outside of classrooms — for example, in bathrooms or hallways. It will be hard to enforce mask wearing in classrooms, and it is not clear how to deal with students who do not have a mask or refuse to wear it:

 “I agree with the majority of my colleagues that there is no clear way to bring students safely back to campus and have a majority of classes meet in-person. The university doesn’t have the building capacity, the labor, testing capacity, or the morale to pull it off. Also, the fact that the decision to prioritize f-2-f in classes taught primarily by graduate student employees and low-paid adjuncts was made without any prior communication with the student-workers affected is extremely troubling” (graduate TA, department of English) 

Graduate workers are anxious about being around people and worry that even if they personally adhere to all safety protocols, they will still get sick, because of others breaching safety measures. They are worried not only about their own health, but also about their family members and broader community. In addition to teaching, some graduate students work with vulnerable populations, or have partners that work high exposure jobs. They are afraid that by teaching in-person they will become bridges between undergraduate students and populations at risk, and help COVID-19 spread faster. 

Lack of protective equipment

In-person classes are capped at 50 students per class, but graduate instructors usually teach more than one class per week. They are anxious about getting exposed to a lot of students every week, and worry that the provided personal protective equipment (two reusable cloth masks, two single-use masks, a face shield and a small hand sanitizer) is not enough:

 “If we are expected to teach those sections and wear masks, then the school should provide at least 1 mask/section. Also, I have 3 sections, each of them has about 20 students, which makes a total of 60 students. That has passed the threshold of 50, making us TAs at most risk and also imposing risks to the students we teach” (Graduate TA, department of Geography). 

Graduate instructors who work in labs have the same worry: 

“Having to teach multiple labs each week greatly, greatly increases my risk of infections and me spreading it to those students. There’s only so much a mask will do when in a room for 2 hours at a time” (Graduate TA, Physics and Astronomy)

Official university policy offers accommodation to instructors that have higher risk, but in reality these accommodations can fail because administration prefers to have specific courses in person, and not online. A student of color said that they are a teaching assistant for an online class with in-person discussion sections, and  the professor emphasized the need of in-person discussion sections because the course relies on participation and interaction and counts towards the Diversity and Inclusion credit: “[It sends the message that] the institutional Diversity and Inclusion stamp means more than the health of minority students in the department”. (graduate TA)

Compromised learning environment and lack of support

Learning environment will be compromised. Graduate TAs are worried that social distancing and masks will destroy a productive learning environment, and it some cases almost impossible: 

“The nature of classes in our department does not allow for observing safety protocols in a viable way- 6ft social distancing, wearing masks, etc. I fear that the university has taken a position that does not prioritize student and employee health and safety by deciding to return to in-person instruction” (Graduate TA, department of Theatre). 

Others noted lack of support from their departments and colleges regarding teaching and planning classes, whether in person or online. Due to a hybrid nature of semester, instructors will have to prepare to teach both in-person and online, and some respondents mentioned that they are not happy about increased workload without compensation.