Moving in photo

After getting tested for COVID-19, a University of Chicago first-year student and her family walk to her dorm on the University of Chicago campus, Sunday, September 20, 2020. 

As the academic year begins, there is still no consensus on how universities across the country should deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have already closed again after several clusters of coronavirus cases broke out on campus, while others, such as Johns Hopkins University, decided to skirt the complexity of reopening by going fully virtual

A month later than most schools, the University of Chicago is grappling with that same problem: how to reopen for the fall term while keeping the novel Coronavirus under control. 

The school’s blueprint for reopening, released gradually over the course of the summer, is now being put to the test as autumn quarter officially starts—the first day of classes is Sept. 29. The plan combines public health measures like testing, mandated quarantines, social distancing and mask-wearing, interventions that it hopes will allow students back in large numbers, and prevent those who are sick from spreading the virus to others. (Out of its first batch of 910 tests administered to students last week, two came back positive.) 

But many workers and students have criticized the U. of C. administration, arguing that reopening at any level is dangerous and puts both students and local residents at an unacceptable level of risk. Two statements released this month — one by a newly organized group of undergraduates called UChicago for Remote Learning and another by the University of Chicago Labor Council (UCLC), a coalition on campus that includes the nurses’ union and Graduate Students United — detail their demands. 

Chief among them is that the university go remote for the autumn quarter in order to protect students, staff and, importantly, the surrounding neighborhoods. 

“UChicago is one part of multiple south-side communities that are populated by Black, Latinx, and Native/Indigenous individuals that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” the student petition reads. “The decisions that the University of Chicago makes impact Washington Park, Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing, Hyde Park, Kenwood, and ultimately the entire city of Chicago.” 

With classes set to start this week, however, it looks unlikely that the school will renege on its decision to hold some of its classes, mostly for first-years, in person. (Johns Hopkins University, which did reverse its initial plans for in-person instruction, made the decision nearly a month before the start of the fall semester.) But the students also levied other demands, like the cancelation of late fees for tuition payments and the closure of “all non-essential on-campus facilities.”

“I and the students that are part of this started this campaign due to the large amount of COVID cases on other college campuses, the population that surrounds us, and the risk of death and long-term illness for members of the direct UChicago community,” said Naa Asheley Afua Ashitey, a fourth-year organizer of the UChicago for Remote Learning campaign. 

“Students should be responsible and not party or violate COVID-19 restrictions,” she continued, “but when university admin are bringing back students, they're almost saying that things are sort of ‘normal’ again and we can have some in-person activity when the science and the data show the opposite.” 

Although she says that students shouldn’t violate restrictions, Ashitey highlighted that the onus to keep the community safe, however, is ultimately on the university, not students. “We [students] rely on admin, essential people with power, to tell us how we approach something.”

And when the administration sets the example, campus attitudes follow suit, she said. “It [reopening] gives students the impression that things aren't that bad, but that's not true.”

The UCLC statement also contains its own set of demands, among them that workers should be able to bargain over changes to the school’s COVID policies. They also call for the institution of an attendance policy that allows workers to miss work without fault. 

“We are especially concerned about the ways in which University workers, including those working for independent contractors, are being made to sacrifice so that UChicago— an institution with an endowment of more than $8 billion—can reopen for in-person learning,” it reads in part. “Given the absolute lack of democratic input on UChicago’s reopening plans, it is clear that workers at UChicago and in the broader community are expected to serve as collateral damage in the effort to begin the Autumn Quarter with in-person learning.”

The statement also criticizes the administration for cutting retirement contributions for some workers, and not putting its reopening plans to a vote in the faculty senate. 

“We find unacceptable the continued lack of University worker input on reopening plans, as well as the general absence of transparency into major University decisions,” the statement reads. 

A group of library workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also condemned the school for its lack of responsiveness in an email interview with the Herald. In meetings with staff about reopening, the workers wrote, administrators select from pre-submitted questions. 

“The answers we do get are often variations on ‘we don't know’ or ‘we're working on that.’ Basic questions about policy enforcement, who is in the library, and safety have been asked all summer and remain unanswered,” the group wrote. 

The library staff were also concerned for their own safety. “When the library resumed on-site services, staff were promised safety measures like plexiglass barriers that didn't appear for weeks.”

In response, a spokesperson for the U. of C. said that “Safety protocols were put in place before Library staff began returning to campus in June, and have been maintained since their arrival in accordance with federal, state and local requirements. The Library created an 8-foot barrier at the entry and exit control desk before any staff returned to work; the barrier was in place as the plexiglass was being designed, ordered and installed.”

As of September 16, the library has released plans, although they are pending approval from university leadership. Generally, study spaces for groups will not be permitted, those with a UChicago ID can book seats in the library for individual study, and materials that can only be consulted in the library such as rare books will be available by appointment. 

The school has also laid out its reopening plans online. At a reduced capacity, the dormitories have reopened and will require all those living in them to undergo a COVID-19 test once a week, and everyone will have a single room. All classes will meet remotely for the first week of the quarter and after the Thanksgiving holiday through the end of the quarter. Students in housing will choose between staying until the end of the quarter or leaving for the holiday and returning at the beginning of the new quarter, in January.

Notably, the university has no mandatory testing plans for students who live in off-campus apartments. Students who are not in university housing but will be on campus regularly may sign up to be a part of a voluntary surveillance program that also includes faculty, staff, and other researchers. This program is selective, though U. of C. Provost Ka Yee Lee announced in a Sept. 23 email that everyone who had applied earlier this month was accepted.

Administrators outlined parts of the philosophy behind its reopening plan during a community forum on Sept. 17. Katie Callow-Wright, Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff in the President’s Office, said that the school wouldn’t use just one metric to change course on its plans. 

“For example, if we were to use test positivity rate as the key metric in our decision making, we wouldn't be accounting for other factors like the spread of the virus around us in the city or in the region,” she said. “So while there's some data points that are particularly important for us to watch on a daily basis and to discuss, it’s the bigger picture that will inform our decision making.” 

Emily Landon, the Executive Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at the U. of C. Medical Center, made a similar point, noting that part of the plan is to “layer” different interventions to minimize the risk of the virus spreading. 

“It's so important that we don't just focus on testing, or just on masking or the fact that all of our people living on campus will be living in single rooms and not sharing rooms,” she said. “It's not just about making sure that when they take their masks off for dining, they have plenty of distance between them. It's about doing all of these things.” 

Administrators also addressed questions of student interactions with the rest of the neighborhood — there’s a form on the reopening website where people can report social distancing violations, and the school is in touch with local real estate companies about student tenants. 

Still, some organizers believe that the university’s preparation for the quarter isn’t enough. 

“Everyone should be personally responsible and not engage in activities that put themselves and others in danger, but UChicago admin also has a personal responsibility to protect students,” said Ashitey. 

“I and the students part of this started this campaign due to the large number of COVID cases on other college campuses, the population that surrounds us, and the risk of death/long-term health illness for members of the direct UChicago community. It felt like no-brainer; we need to advocate for remote learning.”

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