Graduate student workers asking university for more transparency on graduate student COVID-19 cases in classroom

Graduate assistants are grouped with students in COVID-19 test reports, unlike ISU.


Raquele Decker

A COGS sticker is seen on a stop light post on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students is requesting more transparency in COVID-19 case reporting from the University of Iowa as COVID-19 cases on campus have declined for months after spikes early in the fall semester.

At the union’s bargaining session with the state Board of Regents on Feb. 9, members of COGS disagreed with the university’s decision to list graduate student workers strictly as students, despite some working as instructors. Graduate student workers say grouping the numbers of graduate workers who’ve tested positive in its own category or with faculty would be a more complete reflection of possible COVID-19 spread in classrooms. The UI points to low case numbers possibly leading to identifying students as the reason for not separating graduate student workers into their own category in three-times a week COVID-19 self-reported case counts.

COGS’s Chief Campus Steward and Ph.D. student Kezia Walker-Cecil helped present the union’s proposal to the board.

In an interview with The Daily Iowan, she said the UI’s decision to not create a separate section for student workers takes the majority of in-person instructors and categorizes them as students instead of teachers.

“The university has said students are making bad decisions and that’s why numbers were so high,” she said. “There is no way for us to know how many students who test positive are graduate students and how many of them are teaching assistants.”

Graduate-student workers may only have classes with less than 50 people, she said, but some teach several classes a day and interact with up to 100 people in a day. It would be easier to tell if there was COVID-19 spread in classrooms if teaching assistants were placed in a separate category, Walker-Cecil said.

“Statistically, the chances of a graduate student who’s teaching in person of being exposed and possibly getting COVID are pretty much guaranteed because of their work assignment,” Walker-Cecil said. “A lot of graduate student workers were not able to choose if they taught in person or not.”

Iowa State University keeps track of graduate assistants who’ve tested positive as part of a COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard separates between faculty, staff, graduate assistants, and students since the start of the year, and tallies totals since the pandemic began. Since Jan. 1, 171 students, 16 graduate assistants, 33 staff, and seven faculty have tested positive for the virus. Iowa State also logs a more general weekly update that reports just the total number of cases reported for the week and the positivity rate.

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COGS member Blake Monroe, a graduate pharmacy student, said he’s frustrated with the university saying there is no spread of COVID-19 in classrooms when the numbers are only divided into two sections: students and employees.

“Graduate students, who aren’t considered faculty members, are oftentimes the ones delivering in-person instruction,” he said. “Keeping graduate students’ numbers separate made it on to our demands in contract negotiations because it’s an acknowledgement that the university is attentive to the risks that graduate students are incurring.”

The UI said in a campus-wide COVID-19 update in September 2020  and again on Monday that there is no evidence of the virus spreading in classrooms. The university cited the low infection rate of faculty and staff members who had tested positive as evidence there was little transmission during in-person instruction.

Monroe said data transparency lets graduate students trust these COVID-19 systems. Separating numbers is an easy process, he said, because there is no additional cost while allowing graduate students to be seen and heard.

“It makes us feel valuable and like our work to keep the university going is valued,” he said. “We want a different category … because we have different risks.”

UI Assistant Director of Media Relations Hayley Bruce wrote in a statement to the DI that splitting up the numbers any further would result in small groups that could allow someone to narrow down and identify a student who tested positive, which go against the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“[We followed] guidance from the Office of General Counsel. We cannot disclose FERPA or HIPAA protected health information about students if doing so will allow someone to identify particular individuals, as would be the case if the numbers are very low,” she wrote. “Accordingly, we do not provide the information if the number is smaller than six. We are applying the same standard for Faculty and staff for consistency.”

She wrote that HIPPA violations continue to be a concern, especially with the current low rates of cases that would potentially make it easier for members of campus to be identified. The university is continuing to monitor their metrics and policies, however, she wrote.

Cecil-Walker said graduate-student workers were not asked if they wanted to be represented in COVID-19 case reports differently than other students. COGS is taking the issue directly to the regents because it is one of the ways she said graduate-student workers have been let down this semester.

While negotiations continue with the regents, there is no guarantee the reporting of numbers will change. Regardless, Cecil-Walker said graduate-student workers need to be heard because they are the reason the university has in-person classes.

“Graduate students deserve to be listened to,” she said. “We do a lot of work and research for the university. We should be believed and our concerns about safety and the university’s reporting systems accuracy should be validated.”