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IOWA CITY — With COVID cases surging in Iowa as students return to its public universities for the spring semester, the University of Iowa graduate student union is urging members to move all courses they’re teaching online for the first two weeks — despite UI policy barring such action without permission.
“This e-pivot guarantees that our entire campus has ample time to get vaccinated/boosted, complete reentry testing, and quarantine if needed before returning to in-person activities safely,” according to an “E-Pivot Pledge” the UI-based Campaign to Organize Graduate Students — or COGS — began circulating last week urging members to sign and participate in the electronic-instruction shift.
“By signing this pledge committing to an e-pivot, you are doing your part as a member of the campus community to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in the coming weeks.”
Based on pledge signature numbers, according to COGS spokesman and fifth-year UI doctoral candidate Caleb Klipowicz, hundreds across numerous departments have moved their courses online to start the semester — which began Tuesday.
Many have done so despite UI policy and guidance that — like in the fall — urges in-person instruction and requires classes be taught in the modality they’re listed, with exceptions for specific requests that get supervisor approval.
“Temporary course modality changes may be possible if there is significant student absenteeism or if the instructor needs to isolate or quarantine,” according to recent faculty and instructor guidance from UI Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel. “Instructors will need collegiate approval and are required to complete and submit an ‘Instructor Modality Change’ form if they would like to request to temporarily move online.”
Third-year doctorate candidate Dan Stanfield, 33, said he submitted a request to move his three sections online to start the semester, but was denied.
“I intend to still have sections online,” Stanfield said. “I actually teach later today, and that will be online.”
In addition to the rising case numbers — with 104 students self-reporting as COVID positive in the last two days and 85 employees testing positive since Monday — Stanfield said he wants to teach virtually because he recently was exposed.
“Someone I interact with daily just got COVID-induced pneumonia,” he said. “So I’m just trying to be as cautious as possible.”
Because instructors like Stanfield are violating UI policy, COGS has drafted a “no-retaliation” form letter in anticipation of reprimand.
“We ask that you pledge not to retaliate for our instructors’ decision to teach online and notify the instructors … there will be no retaliation against those who have opted to teach remotely until the surge abates,” according to the COGS template.
After the Board of Regents on Jan. 12 announced no operational or policy changes heading into the spring — meaning mask, distancing, and vaccine mandates remain prohibited, with in-person instruction prioritized — UI President Barbara Wilson last week updated faculty and staff.
“Yesterday, we received updated guidance from the Board of Regents stating that we are expected to engage in a face-to-face environment this semester,” Wilson wrote in a Jan. 13 communication. “For many of you, this is a welcome relief. For others, it is discouraging news. I have heard from both sides.”
She encouraged the campus to “put aside our differences and commit to working together, as Hawkeyes do.” And in a message to teaching assistants Tuesday, when classes resumed, Associate Provost for Graduate & Professional Education and Graduate College Dean Amanda Haertling Thein reiterated that sentiment in reminding instructors UI is “expected to engage in a face-to-face environment this semester.”
Thein, Wilson, Kregel, and the Board of Regents have encouraged the campus to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated. And Thein noted at least two changes in COVID-related guidance from the fall, including instructors now get daily reports of students who might be absent.
She also highlighted the “instructor modality change request form” for teachers wanting to shift courses online due to isolation needs or student absenteeism.
But COGS wants instructors and professors allowed to shift online for other reasons.
“We support instructors’ choice to teach their class in the format that they feel is reasonable at this time,” according to a COGS form letter members were encouraged to send their supervisors. “This action is in line with many other peer institutions who have also decided it is necessary to start the semester online.”
The graduate student union, in pushing for more teaching freedoms this spring, compiled a chart of safety precautions other Big Ten universities have taken — none of which are occurring at Iowa.
Every other campus is requiring masks indoors, according to the COGS chart. And many are requiring regular testing or reentry testing as they return to campus. Five are requiring vaccination — including Rutgers University, which checked all the precaution boxes.
In a Jan. 11 letter to regents, Wilson, and other UI leaders, COGS representatives laid out concerns and called previous policies “out of date and unsustainable.”
“The university’s current plans for in-person learning with no additional safety measures for the spring 2022 term are entirely unacceptable,” according to the letter. “By failing to act now, the university administration and Board of Regents are placing thousands of people at risk of infections, and potentially at risk of hospitalization, disability, and death.”
COGS in that communication presented demands for administrators. They include:
- Moving all classes and meetings online for at least the first two weeks of the semester, with a return to in-person meetings coming only with approval from the Faculty Senate, Graduate and Professional Student Government, Undergraduate Student Government, and campus labor unions;
- Instituting a 3 percent threshold halting all in-person activities for at least one week if 3 percent of more of the UI community tests positive;
- Providing all staff, students, and instructors free at-home COVID tests and personal protective gear weekly;
- Requiring reentry testing and a negative test before joining in-person classes;
- Conducting campuswide contact tracing and alerting instructors when positive cases self-report in their classrooms;
- Maintaining 14-day quarantine requirements for positive cases;
- And conducting weekly surveillance testing on all students living on campus.
Although Stanfield remains resolved to hold his sections online for the time being, he acknowledged student opinions are mixed.
“Some students really want the in person experience, which is very relatable,” he said. “I actually would prefer to teach in person.”
UI officials confirmed they’ve had — out of more than 6,000 class sections — “a few requests to move courses online and have approved a few that met the criteria in the spring guidance.”
They didn’t provide specific numbers of how many requests have come in, how many have been approved or denied, what happens to those who go virtual without approval, and whether any instructors or faculty have been reprimanded.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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