Last Saturday, on the porch two doors down from where I live, a crowd of unmasked young people cheered as an exuberant 19-year-old in a Hawkeyes tee shirt threw a pingpong ball in a perfect arc, landing it squarely in a glass of beer, from which his opponent, another young man, then drank. That day, the state of Iowa hit its second-highest count of new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period: 832.
I moved to Iowa in 2017 to pursue my MFA in poetry from Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I taught University classes as a TA. After I graduated, I was granted a one-year fellowship position working as an adjunct teaching Creative Writing. Teaching at the University of Iowa was one of the most fulfilling times in my life. My students, and the University, made me a better educator, and I’ll be forever grateful. But today, as I watch the University of Iowa callously jeopardize the health and safety of my former students and colleagues, and of the staff who work tirelessly to keep the school running, I’m ashamed to be a Hawkeye.
Let me be blunt: when the University of Iowa reopens for in-person classes on Aug. 24, it will not be prepared, and people will die. Beyond the obvious inherent risk of bringing over 30,000 students back to campus for in-person learning in the middle of a global pandemic, UI has proved itself uniquely unfit for the challenge by failing to provide effective leadership. The evidence has been mounting all summer. “Socially distanced” lecture halls leave only one single seat between each student — a far cry from the CDC’s guidelines of six feet. In early August, buildings and facilities reopened to students days before the University distributed PPE kits. Departments, many of them already being forced to lay off faculty, are expected, at their individual discretion, to pay for plexiglass barriers and hand sanitizer — or not.
Most alarming of all, perhaps, is the lack of testing. Unlike other colleges and universities reopening this fall, the University of Iowa has no programs in place for mass testing or contact tracing. The university argues that such testing would be a waste of resources, and would give students a false sense of security if they tested negative. But what sense of security is more false than no test at all? To put this in perspective, when Iowa State University tested its residential students for COVID-19 as they moved into their dorms, 2.2 percent tested positive. Presuming the same 2.2 percent infection rate at UI, that’s around 141 students within the 6,500 living on campus — and that’s not to mention the 25,000 students who live off-campus. According to the same metric, 550 of them could be unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to their housemates, friends, parents, and neighbors, to waiters and grocery store employees, and, next week, to their custodians, librarians, and teachers.
The fact that this is a terrible idea is not lost on the UI community. According to a July 27 student survey, three in four students are afraid of contracting COVID-19 on campus. Nearly 300 faculty members signed a pledge committing to teaching their classes online in the fall, and over 700 community members signed a petition demanding classes be moved online. The student government wrote an open letter urging the University to shift to online learning. Resident Advisors in the dorms, many of whom would lose their housing if they quit, have openly pleaded with the University to take their safety into account. Still, amid all of this, the University of Iowa’s administration insists that it’s safe to reopen. How, we ask again and again. The how, they explain, isn’t up to them. Apparently, it’s up to all of us.
The University of Iowa’s plan for reopening centers around the idea of individual choice. As President Bruce Harreld penned in an email to a concerned student (in an exchange that went viral on Twitter), “You, your fellow students, all faculty, all staff, everyone has a choice. If you don’t feel comfortable, stay home …. a vocal few shouldn’t remove the right of choice for all the rest of our community.” But getting through this pandemic requires more than people’s individual choices — it requires the solid leadership necessary to help people make those choices.
The fact is that students, faculty, and staff at UIowa do have choices — but those choices aren’t nearly as simple as Harreld would lead us to believe. For any student attending the university on a scholarship, that scholarship is predicated on continuous enrollment. In other words, students who, concerned about contracting the coronavirus, take the academic year off, likely won’t be able to afford to return. Adjuncts and graduate TAs, who collectively make up two thirds of the University’s instructors, are often paid under $10,000 a year — and many adjuncts don’t even receive health insurance benefits. These instructors often don’t have the choice of quitting their jobs if they’re asked to teach in person; in Iowa, if someone does not return to their job when it reopens, they can’t receive unemployment insurance benefits. Staff face impossible choices, too — to risk their lives cleaning dorms that are likely to be hotbeds of infection, or to be out of a job during the worst recession in modern history.
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Even for students and faculty with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, the “choice” to opt out of face-to-face classes is fraught with administrative challenges. If a faculty member’s health concern does not fall under one of the narrow CDC categories for “higher risk,” the Human Resources department can deny that person’s application to teach online. The same goes for students applying to move their classes online. But the CDC guidelines don’t take into account population risks. For instance, Black people die of COVID-19 at 2.4 times the rate of white people. Indigenous and Latinx people also die of COVID-19 at a significantly increased rate. When these metrics were pointed out to Steve Goddard, former head of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, by a woman of color who was afraid to teach in person, Goddard urged her to seek counseling for her anxiety.
By positioning disease prevention as an individual choice, rather than a collective one, the University of Iowa places the burden of public health on faculty and staff who are afraid to lose their jobs during a pandemic, on terrified students who don’t want to lose their scholarships, and on 18 to 24-year-olds, a population who, due to the stage of their brain development, are the most likely to flout public health requirements to, say, play a game of beer pong with their friends.
As educators, it isn’t our job to stand by and watch our students make mistakes — it’s our job to teach them what’s right. If we tell our students that it’s OK for 50 people to be indoors together for a lecture, what’s to stop them from having a 50 person party? The myth of personal responsibility is convenient for school administrators who would rather set their students up for failure than make difficult decisions themselves. Bruce Harreld is right, there is a choice here. But it’s not our choice — it’s his.
Nora Claire Miller is a poet and teacher from New York City, currently living in Iowa City. She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2019.