The University of Georgia Graduate Student Council passed a resolution on Oct. 1 asking for numerous changes in UGA President Jere Morehead and the UGA administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members of 33 graduate departments approved the resolution with a 31-2 vote, said Kathleen Hurlock, GSC student advocacy committee chair. The members condemned UGA's current response to the COVID-19 pandemic and demanded increasing remote learning to ensure a more stable, inclusive workplace and learning climate at UGA.
The university has stated it will be offering more in-person classes for the spring 2021 semester.
“The resolution we published has two arcs to it. One about the life of a student on campus and the other as a worker on campus. As graduate students, most of us fit under both of these arcs,” Hurlock said.
The resolution represents graduate students’ concerns about the university's push to increase more in-person classes.
“Next semester as a teaching assistant, I am teaching something I have never taught before and the upper body hasn’t even given me any plans of if I am expected to teach fully in-person or not,” Hurlock said. “There are no answers given to me or other instructors at this point.”
The graduate students are worried that even though some of them may live with high-risk family members, university workers such as graduate student teaching assistants will not be allowed to work remotely without ADA accommodation.
UGA has consistently released its on-campus COVID-19 case data once every week this semester. The authors of the resolution now demand for daily case updates and a separate count of cases among graduate students. Their call for increased transparency from the university also includes an established number of on-campus cases that would trigger a campus shutdown.
Additionally, the resolution demands UGA increase its daily testing capacity beyond the current maximum of 500 tests per day, noting that this only allows 2,500 tests per week — which only covers about 5% of UGA’s total population of students, faculty and staff.
Other points discuss issues that are more unique to graduate students, such as how COVID-19 has affected many graduate students' ability to learn and study. The move to hyflex and hybrid teaching models has also raised the workload for those graduate students who work as assistant teaching instructors. In response, the GSC demands that instructors be offered an option if they would like to teach their courses online or in-person.
“They are only giving us one option and that is to return to campus for the majority of in-person classes. All we are asking for is the ability to have the option of being remote for our health in terms of being students and workers,” said Justin Simpson, a member of the UGA Graduate Student Association.
While Morehead did not respond to the resolution, UGA’s Graduate School Dean Ron Walcott addressed their concerns in a letter on Oct. 12.
“Despite the challenges of COVID-19, we are persevering. We have reached the midpoint of the Fall Semester; in a few more weeks, after Thanksgiving, we will finish coursework and final exams online,” Walcott said in the letter. “We will return for the Spring Semester with our current blend of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses. The Vice President for Instruction is presently working with faculty representatives to finalize the Spring Semester academic calendar.”
Simpson felt this response was not enough.
“Our resolution was written because we, as workers, never get a say in the final decisions made by the upper body on things like COVID-19 which affect us all, especially being workers. They always move forward regardless of what we think and they are doing it again,” Simpson said.
On Oct. 13, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents released a statement declaring it “supports continuing safe in-person instruction,” and that all USG institutions should maximize in-person instruction and ensure hybrid classes include a “vast majority” of in-person instruction when it is safe.
“I realize that this response will not satisfy all of your concerns, as the University of Georgia will not be reversing its course for the Fall Semester and will be offering a blend of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses in the Spring,” Walcott said.
The GSA distributed a survey on Oct. 29 to more graduate students to hear feedback on Walcott’s letter and the policies of reopening for the spring.
Hurlock said that out of the graduate students who responded, about one quarter are “totally dissatisfied” with the current COVID-19 policies and one quarter are totally satisfied, with half falling somewhere in between.
57% of respondents want the GSC to pursue a resolution addressed to the entire University System of Georgia, Hurlock said. Additionally, 46% of the graduate students support an immediate vote of no confidence in the UGA administration. 14% of the students said they would like to hold a no confidence vote if the administration does not change its decision.