CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa leadership condemns faculty planned sickout

'I respectfully remind you that as role models, you have an obligation to deliver instruction as assigned'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — After learning that some University of Iowa faculty and staff members plan to call in sick Wednesday to protest in-person instruction during the pandemic, Interim Provost Kevin Kregel condemned the threatened action and said it compromised “students’ ability to maintain the educational progress critical to their future success.”

“I respectfully remind you that as role models, you have an obligation to deliver instruction as assigned, and to provide appropriate notice of absences due to illness,” Kregel wrote Tuesday in a broadly distributed message. “We also would expect appropriate documentation of sick leave usage.”

Johnson County, home to the UI, has become a flashpoint in the state’s COVID-19 trends in recent days — leading the state in new cases with a seven-day average of 190. The county, with 3,978 cases total, reported a positivity rate of 29 percent during a 24-hour period ending at 11 a.m. Tuesday. That’s nearly 10 points higher than the state’s already elevated positivity test rate,

The UI on Monday reported another 326 new student cases of COVID-19 and three more employee cases — bringing its total to 935 for the semester, which just started last week.

Faculty, staff and students have written letters and emails to UI President Bruce Harreld protesting the return to in-person classes, and launched online petitions calling for the campus to shift back to an online-only format — like it did mid-March when COVID-19 arrived in Iowa.

Other universities across the country facing spikes in COVID-19 cases have sent students home shortly after inviting them back for fall. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, for example, moved all undergraduate classes online in mid-August just days into the semester after 130 more students tested positive.

UI administrators, including Harreld, have declined to do the same — stressing the need to offer students the choice of learning virtually or in person, even though some faculty and staff without high-risk conditions have told The Gazette they don’t have the same flexibility.

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A UI-based chapter of the Sunshine Movement, which characterizes itself as a national youth-led political movement, posted on its Facebook page Monday evening a proposal to “call in sick so we don’t get sick.”

The event was organized by a coalition of undergraduate and graduate students, instructors, faculty and staff members. The group is not affiliated with any specific group.

“On September 2, students and faculty are calling in sick to demand 100% online instruction at Uiowa,” said the post, which used the hashtag #uiowasickout.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, more than 200 people had marked themselves as either interested or participating to the event.

“After the first week of classes at the University of Iowa, there were 607 self-reported cases of COVID-19 on campus among students,” the Sunshine Movement’s post said. “If Iowa were a country, it would have the third highest rate of infection per capita in the world.

“Despite this, the University of Iowa’s administration insists that it’s safe to remain open for in person classes. It’s time for action.”

In Kregel’s message Tuesday, which went to both faculty and graduate students who work as teaching assistants, he chided not only those who planned the sickout but said “I am also concerned about the choice of some faculty in leadership positions to support this approach.”

“It is my understanding that a number of faculty plan to call in sick Wednesday as a means of protesting the university’s decision to continue in-person instruction,” he wrote. “While the university acknowledges individuals’ concerns about in-person instruction, I strongly disagree with the planned manner of expressing those concerns.”

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Kregel said the UI “is committed to providing a world-class educational experience to our students while reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for all members of the campus community.”

He noted numerous mitigation measures the campus has taken — spending months and millions to prepare for the return of tens of thousands of faculty and staff to campus this fall.

“Several elements of the plan are specifically designed to reduce the risk of exposure in the classroom during face-to-face instruction,” he said. “This includes the mandatory use of face coverings while on campus, designated instructor zones, decreased student density, and evaluation of ventilation, circulation, mechanical and life-safety systems of each campus facility to identify and remediate conditions that may increase the risk of COVID transmission in common areas.”

Plus, he said, the campus has ramped up its cleaning and disinfection practices. And, according to Kregel, employees with COVID-related concerns can apply for flexible work arrangements or paid leave benefits.

“University employees who are at increased risk for COVID-related severe illness may request temporary alternative work arrangements,” he wrote, reporting more than 400 temporary arrangement requests have been approved, including more than 240 from faculty members.

Despite all the COVID-19 training required for faculty, staff and students — who also had to sign campus agreements promising to follow mitigation measures — large numbers of maskless students over the weekend before classes began crowded in and outside Iowa City bars, which did not appear to be enforcing distancing and face-covering requirements.

The university has received more than a dozen complaints reporting campus violations of its guidelines, and at least one faculty member was photographed teaching without a face covering.

In response to that picture, provided to The Gazette, UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said administrators expect the entire campus community to follow mitigation guidelines — including the mandate to wear face coverings in all university buildings.

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“The Office of the Provost has addressed the situation and will also be sending all faculty members a reminder regarding the need to adhere to university policy regarding face coverings,” Beck said. “Repeated failure to adhere will be addressed through the provost’s office for faculty, human resources for staff, and the Student Accountability Office for students.”

With campus criteria already moving all classes of 50 or more students online, plus faculty requests to do so for smaller classes due to high-risk circumstances, the UI reported last week that 76 percent of all undergraduate credit hours now are online. A higher percentage of graduate and professional credit hours are being offered in person.

Kregel acknowledged in his message that “this is a challenging period for everyone.”

“We sincerely hope that the faculty will engage in conversation and collaboration with the university to employ other means of expression that will avoid disruption to the educational progress of our students,” he wrote.

Organizers of Wednesday’s planned UI sickout asked faculty and staff to sign a pledge and call in sick. They also provided this FAQ via Facebook:

Q: Why pledge? Why not just call in sick?

A: “Pledging to call in sick shows the UIowa administration that we have numbers, making the protest more visible.”

Q: What is a sickout?

A: “A sickout is an organized absence by workers on the pretext of sickness, often as a form of group protest. During this pandemic, sickouts have proven to be an effective organizing tool among teachers and retail and grocery workers.

“In a moment where all of us are at risk of getting sick and spreading illness, a sickout also recognizes that many of us may have already been exposed without our knowledge due to the UIowa’s carelessness.

“A sickout works best if lots of people participate, which is why it’s so important to spread the word among undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty.”

Q: Should I participate even if all of my classes are online?

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A: “Yes! By calling in sick from our online classes, we stand in solidarity with our colleagues, students and classmates, many of whom don’t have the choice to move their classes online. None of us are safe until all of us are safe.”

Q: I’m a faculty member. Will I get in trouble for calling in sick?

A: “Short answer: it’s complicated. If you’re worried about retaliation, there is an option to sign the pledge anonymously. If calling in sick isn’t an option for you, we understand. We encourage you to help out by sharing the sickout with your networks at UIowa.”

Q: Should staff members call in sick?

A: “Staff members at UIowa are often at the greatest risk for COVID-19 exposure on campus. Because staff often have limited (if any) paid sick leave, we are not specifically asking them to call in sick (though we invite any staff members for whom calling in sick is an option to join us). By demanding online classes, we stand in solidarity with staff members who are put at risk from the outbreak caused by in person instruction.”

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

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