Students, instructors, pick up the phone to call in sick, demand virtual learning

Students called in sick for school on Wednesday, demanding UI administrators and the Board of Regents move all classes online.


Hannah Kinson

Photo Illustration by Hannah Kinson

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

For hundreds of students at the University of Iowa, yesterday was a sick day.

A coalition of undergraduate students, graduate students, instructors, faculty, and staff encouraged students and faculty at the UI to call in sick for classes on Sept. 2 and to demand all classes go virtual.

According to an Aug. 28 email from the Office of Admissions, 78 percent of undergraduate classes are held online.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, the organizers of “UIowa Sickout” said when they were planning the campaign, they expected roughly 300 people to participate. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 850 people pledged to call in sick.

“We’re floored by the outpouring of support that the UIowa sickout has received. Hearing the stories people have shared with us confirms what we already knew – the reopening has failed,” the organizers said in the email. “Now, the University of Iowa must act quickly to protect the health of its students, staff, faculty, and the Iowa City community. Classes must be moved online, and this must happen immediately.”

RELATED: Sickout organizers advocate for online classes, provost urges faculty to stay in class

In addition to calling in sick, the group encouraged people to call UI administrators and demand classes go fully online. They listed the names and numbers of UI President Bruce Harreld, his assistants and advisors, as well as Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel, Vice President of Student Life Sarah Hansen, Senior Vice President Rod Lehnertz, and the Board of Regents.

Organizers made a syllabus for how students could spend their sick day, which included links to help them catch up on the news and media to watch, read or listen to.

Some students however, had concerns with the sickout. UI sophomore Peter Mertka said the rhetoric coming from the social media accounts worried him, because it could lead to a campus shut down, and some students may not have a safe home to return to.

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“I’ve been talking to close friends, and they’ve been expressing to me how much they were waiting to come back to campus because their home lives are not as good as mine,” he said. “They have legitimate concerns about being at home, whether it be from parents who don’t take COVID seriously, parents who don’t really necessarily accept or approve of life choices or identities.”

Michelle Walsh also didn’t participate in the sickout, but not because of the rhetoric. Walsh, from New Jersey, isn’t enrolled at the UI – instead she is living in Iowa City to establish residency before attending the university next year.

Since she couldn’t participate in the sickout, she made a different pledge to herself.

“If they don’t change, I’m just going to go back home because it’s so apparent — it’s just disgusting — how much they don’t care and I don’t want to support a university that just doesn’t care about their students,” Walsh said.

Partners and lecturers in the UI Department of Rhetoric Brittany Borghi and Colin Kostelecky both teach classes completely virtually and said they are supportive of the sickout.

Borghi said she was able to receive a faculty disability services exemption from in-person teaching after seeing her classroom and realizing she couldn’t teach safely and effectively there.

She said she didn’t think personal discussions would work in a classroom set up for social distancing, and she felt it would be her fault if a student got sick.

RELATED: As COVID-19 cases rise in Johnson County, students call for UI to move completely online with renewed urgency

“Am I morally, ethically, responsible for asking them to come into that space where I could not reasonably assure their safety? And that is what made me pursue my online exemption, because I said like, ‘Well, no I can’t answer that I can’t say yes to that,’” she said.

Kostelecky said he did not receive administrative permission to go online, but he took it into his own hands and told students in-person learning would not be safe. He didn’t call in sick today because he wanted to keep his “digital door open” to his rhetoric students. He did however encourage students to participate in the sickout.

Kostelecky called for Harreld to step down from his position.

“Before we opened up classes we had the highest per capita COVID cases in the Midwest,” he said. “Now we have the highest per capita cases in the entire country. I don’t know what he’s waiting for. I don’t know if he’s waiting for us to have the highest numbers in the entire world, but he needs to step down, he needs to show some action now.”