CORONAVIRUS

Hundreds of University of Iowa instructors pledge to call in sick

Organizers argue for online classes to 'save our lives'

A sign in support of University of Iowa health care workers is seen in April in front of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa
A sign in support of University of Iowa health care workers is seen in April in front of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City. Around 700 UI staff signed a pledge to call in sick Wednesday to protest in-person classes, arguing online classes are safer for all. The university employs nearly 30,000 staff. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Even after the University of Iowa’s interim provost had reminded faculty and staff of their “obligation to deliver instruction as assigned” in discouraging participation in a planned sickout, 725 people as of Wednesday morning pledged online to call in sick.

Of that total, 72 percent were undergraduate students, nearly 9 percent were graduate students not serving as teaching assistants and the remaining nearly 20 percent were faculty and staff, including teaching assistants, according to organizers that included undergrad and grad students, instructors, faculty and staff.

The UI has 3,100 faculty members and 2,100 graduate assistants among its nearly 30,000 employees and staff.

“We know that faculty at this school have the capacity to deliver high quality online instruction,” the group said in a statement. “We know that moving online would help slow the spread of this deadly disease in our community.”

Before the semester started, students leaders wrote to UI administrators to plead courses be online — where they had been since mid-March, when the pandemic arrived in Iowa.

Administrators remained steadfast in their pursuit of reopening plans after spending months and millions on mitigation measures to buildings and classrooms and after training faculty and staff about their personal responsibilities.

UI President Bruce Harreld has maintained the importance of offering students a choice between a virtual or in-person experience.

But faculty and staff without high-risk personal situations have said they don’t have the same options.

Nonetheless. the number of classes delivered online has ballooned since this time last year. In fall 2019, just 621 classes were online, according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck. Now, 3,469 of all classes are online.

The means 76 percent of undergraduate credit hours now are being delivered by virtual instruction, she said.

Administrators have received at least 233 requests from employees to move to online teaching — and have approved all but one, Beck said.

UI Interim Provost Kevin Kregel’s message Tuesday to faculty members and the graduate student union notes faculty and instructor absences compromise “our students’ ability to maintain the educational progress critical to their future success.”

“While the university acknowledges individuals’ concerns about in-person instruction, I strongly disagree with the planned manner of expressing those concerns,” Kregel wrote.

Organizers of the UI sickout Wednesday said they haven’t heard anything more from administrators and accused UI officials of falsely saying the campus’ graduate student union was behind calling the protest.

In a response to Kregel and John Keller, associate provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate College, union leaders thanked the administrators for “informing us and our bargaining unit about an alleged plan for people to call in sick on Wednesday. We want to assure you that UE Local 896 COGS did not plan and will not sanction this event,” according to the union’s letter. “However, we are glad you are finally engaging with us.”

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Throughout the summer, according to COGS leadership, the union tried to engage with administrators “while being left out of response and planning teams dealing with COVID-19.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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