By Preston Taylor Stone, contributing columnist
The University of Miami has failed its graduate student instructors. The Covid-19 crisis has brought added dangers to in-person instruction, and while the university has issued a detailed plan of the steps it will be taking to ensure virus transmission is as low as possible, the Centers for Disease Control still estimates that for every one person who tests positive, there are 10 people who are positive that have not been tested. Moreover, the University’s own numbers indicate that an estimated 15% of people in the community will contract coronavirus. Why doesn’t UM follow the lead of its South Florida peer institutions and other universities across the country and move to online instruction?
As you likely know, students at the university have been given the option to take classes virtually; however, faculty have not been given the same choice. Recently, as reported in major news outlets like The Miami Hurricane and the Miami Herald, faculty delivered a signed petition with over 600 signatures requesting that faculty receive the same choice.
Graduate students operate at a very peculiar intersection of these two poles, though. As students, we are able to request virtual instruction, although we have been told this may result in steeper costs of education if our financial aid packages are readjusted. Then, as instructors, we are not given the choice to teach our courses virtually.
While the university has set up a system whereby faculty and graduate student instructors can request accommodations based on physical health concerns, these accommodations do not take into consideration mental health concerns and require medical documentation, which means graduate students must disclose personal medical information to university administrators just to maybe receive accommodations.
Moreover, many of these accommodation requests have been denied or sit in limbo waiting on a multi-tiered system of approval. Some have even been told they ought to take a leave of absence (and thereby risk going completely without pay) rather than seek accommodations. This is, of course, proof of blatant disregard for the health and safety of the instructors that are so essential to the student experience at the U. More still, this may even violate the Americans with Disabilities Act since it is de facto discrimination to not take mental health concerns into consideration, to require medical information be disclosed to administration, or to suggest a leave of absences simply because we fear for our health and safety.
Graduate students who are instructors at the university are in practice being required to teach in-person if they have been denied accommodation by the administration. In order for graduate students like myself to keep our stipends and/or tuition remission contracts, we are required to risk our mental and physical health and safety. How will this affect student education? How will students be impacted by a professor who is at their wit’s end due to the very valid fear that contracting the coronavirus is more likely if we have to teach face-to-face?
We can argue about the veracity of medical advice and data that indicates tens of thousands of students densely repopulating a small area will inevitably create a surge in viral transmission, but one thing is clear: the university administration cares more about not giving up power and money than helping graduate student instructors find accommodations for teaching online. If the administration of the university cares for its graduate student instructors like it says it does, they will reverse the accommodation requirements and allow instructors to receive the choice to teach virtually.
Covid-19 is not something we should have to risk getting an education. As UM’s own sources indicate, even if one survives contraction of the virus, they are very likely to face life-long ailments related to the virus, including scarring of cardiovascular tissue and weakened pulmonary health.
I want to close by asking that if you are a student at this university, kindly email the administration and stress that instructors deserve the same choice you were awarded.
Preston Taylor Stone is a Ph.D student in the Department of English at UM, where his research focuses on ethnic studies, queer studies and contemporary culture.
Featured photo by Jared Lennon, photo editor.