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UI Students, Faculty, Staff Plan 'Sickout' To Call For Online Instruction

A coalition of University of Iowa faculty, staff and students is organizing a sickout to call attention to the surging cases of the coronavirus on campus.

A coalition of students, faculty and staff at the University of Iowa is organizing a sickout for Wednesday to draw attention to a surge in coronavirus cases on campus and throughout Johnson County. The group hopes to pressure administrators to move the school to all online instruction immediately.

Organizers of the UI sickout are urging all students and instructors to call in sick on Wednesday, saying they’re “terrified” of the current transmission rates in Iowa City, which are among the highest in the world, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

In a written statement released to reporters, the group says an immediate shift to all virtual instruction would help slow the spread of the virus, which has increased dramatically as the campus reopened.

“No one should have to die for in person classes. We know that faculty at this school have the capacity to deliver high quality online instruction. We know that moving online would help slow the spread of this deadly disease in our community. We know that the time for action is now,” the group’s written statement reads in part.

Organizers of the UI Sickout declined an on-the-record interview with IPR, due to concerns that individuals involved could lose their jobs at the university, and citing legal guidance from an attorney that they “could be sued by the University for tortious interference with their contractual relations."

Organizers say they’re not only worried about their own risk, but concerned that the virus will spillover from the campus and into the broader community.

“The COVID-19 outbreak that UIowa’s reopening is causing in Iowa City impacts everyone in our community. UIowa needs to accept that its actions have consequences that reach well beyond our school,” the group’s written statement continues.

As of Monday, 922 UI students and 13 employees had self-reported they’ve tested positive for the virus. Because the school does not require self-reports, the actual infection rate is likely higher.

Still, UI President Bruce Harreld has defended the school’s in-class mitigation efforts, which include limiting capacity, installing barriers, requiring and providing face coverings, and testing those who are symptomatic. According to the university, 76 percent of undergraduate credit hours are currently online. Harreld has instead pointed to the off-campus party scene as a key driver of the virus.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 509 people had pledged to call in sick, according to the group. Of those, some 75 percent identified themselves as undergrads, 19.5 percent graduate students, (including teaching assistants), 2.5 percent adjuncts or non-tenure track faculty, 2 percent staff and 1 percent tenured faculty.

This is not the first such attempt by students or faculty to criticize administrative decision-making and call for change, efforts which the UI Sickout organizers say have been “largely ignored." Students have penned open letters, questioned supervisors, staged protests and voiced their concerns to the press.

Still, some administrators have taken issue with this latest organized action, according to an email shared with IPR sent by Associate Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate College John Keller and Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel, and addressed to the UI graduate student union COGS.

“The unplanned and unauthorized absence of graduate-level instructors compromises our students’ ability to maintain the educational progress critical to their future success. Accordingly, while we acknowledge your concerns about in-person instruction, we strongly disagree with your manner of expressing those concerns,” the email reads in part. “We respectfully remind your members of their obligation to deliver instruction as assigned, and to provide appropriate notice of absences due to illness.”

The administrators point to the in-class mitigation efforts, as well as “temporary alternative work arrangements” that faculty and staff can request. So far, more than 400 such requests have been granted, including more than 100 for graduate students, according to the email.

“We acknowledge that this is a challenging period for everyone, and we must remain mindful of our core mission to serve the educational needs of our students. We sincerely hope that in the future, your organization will employ other means of expression to prevent disruption to the educational progress of our students,” the administrators add.

As of Tuesday, Iowa City had the third highest number of new cases per capita of any metro area in the country, according to the New York Times. Iowa overall had the highest rate of new infections in the US.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter