Looking at Harper’s Cluster Outbreak, MSU Teaching Assistants Question Reopening Campus

Print More

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Who will teach MSU on-campus classes come fall? Spartan TA’s won’t.

That was the consensus feeling at a Graduate Employees Union (GEU) Town Hall held on Friday evening, June 26.

The GEU represents MSU graduate student Teaching Assistants (TA) as a Collective Bargaining Unit. TA’s assist in courses on campus and also function as sole instructors for many classes. Without their labor, the university’s educational system can’t function anywhere close to normally.

At Friday’s Town Hall, when the union’s executive board polled the roughly 75 members in attendance about their comfort returning to teach in-person classes in the fall, 55 percent said they would not feel comfortable returning under any circumstances, given the state of the public health emergency.

An additional 37 percent said the number COVID-19 cases in the area would have to be lower for them to feel safe retuning to in-person instruction.

In contrast, 6 percent said they would feel comfortable returning in the current conditions, and only 1 percent said they would consider returning with higher case numbers.

The vote was informed by the recent cluster of cases tied to Harper’s Brewpub. At the meeting, the assumption was that the number of cases tied to Harper’s was somewhere in the 50s.

By later that evening, ELi reported the health department had put the total at 76 cases, and as of now, the number of cases linked to Harper’s stands at  85.

The Detroit Free Press now reports that a cluster outbreak in Grosse Pointes has been tied to a young person who is believed to have picked up the disease at Harper’s.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The scene outside Harper’s on June 13, 2020.

The Ingham County Health Department confirmed this afternoon that none of the 85 cases tied to Harper’s have involved hospitalization.

At the GEU meeting, one member said they were not comfortable with a return to campus because of its ramifications for the East Lansing area.

The member stated in the Zoom text chat, “If MSU has ANY classes on campus, the population of East Lansing will increase by thousands. This choice will lead to the death of many people, especially the most vulnerable. We, as a union, are the only body of power able to stop this spread of disease by drastic action – such as AT LEAST the threat of a strike if not a full strike.”

The GEU’s executive board members clarified that state law forbade them from directly organizing a strike. If the GEU were to strike, it would have to be a wildcat strike, called for and organized by the general membership.

The membership expressed feeling underwhelmed by President Sam Stanley’s response to the Harper’s outbreak and his plans for reopening MSU.

During the town hall, Stanley sent an email to MSU students. Stanley said all employees and students will be expected to wear face coverings. Students living both on and off campus will receive a safety kit that will include “two plain face coverings, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes,” but students are encouraged to procure additional, reusable face coverings on their own.

Stanley said that MSU will test “any student who becomes symptomatic after returning to campus.” MSU is also developing a screening process to “help identify potential outbreaks sooner.”

MSU President Sam Stanley

Stanley made no mention of the Harper’s outbreak, which includes asymptomatic cases. The University Physician sent an email about the Harper’s outbreak, but one member believed the letter had a “heavy emphasis on personal responsibility.”

Acacia Ackles, the Vice President of Organizing and Outreach, stated that the GEU wanted teaching in-person to be “opt-in.”

In this scenario, TAs would be exclusively assigned online courses unless they told their department that they felt comfortable teaching in-person. This approach would protect members from having to disclose medical conditions that could later be used against them later in a discriminatory matter.

While MSU has previously announced that it would like 50 percent of classes to be online, 25 percent hybrid, and 25 percent in-person, it delegated the authority of deciding class type to departments. Some members said that they had already received word that they would be acting as TAs for online courses.

The GEU plans to ask the university that departments prioritize funding assistance for graduate students who could not complete their degrees in the expected timeframe due to the pandemic and international graduate students, who are often excluded from receiving federal funding.

According to GEU President Kevin Bird, the GEU’s demands are similar to those being made by graduate employee unions at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

At the town hall, special attention was paid to the concerns international teaching assistants face.

Stephie Kang, the chair of the GEU’s International TA Committee chair, explained that international students can only take one online course if they are to maintain fulltime student status, which in turn can affect visa status.

The MSU Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) is currently waiting for more information from the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to see if this requirement will be waived as it was during the spring semester when MSU abruptly transitioned to online learning.

MSU grad student Liao Zhang in March. Read ELi’s special report from March on the shut-down’s impact on international students.

Some members pointed out the racial disparities associated with the pandemic. One member posted in the chat, “The disparities are such that ‘If black lives matter, Covid-19 matters.’ It seems a little disingenuous [for MSU] to make statements about commitment to racial justice and then proceed as though you’re indifferent to undue community exposure. It seems hypocritical.”

By the end of the meeting, the consensus seemed clear that the initial plans for an opt-in system were perceived as not enough to protect TAs, particularly since the COVID-19 situation in East Lansing can deteriorate as young people party.

The GEU is considering using its contacts with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to pressure Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Governor Gretchen Whitmer to take action to limit in-person instruction at colleges and universities.

The union is also interested in working with the East Lansing City Council to pressure MSU to change its plans for the fall.

The GEU will hold another town hall in two weeks to address progress made on these fronts.

Note: Emily Joan Elliott was a member of the GEU from 2012-2019. She agreed for this reporting to use only the names of executive board members to protect the general membership from retaliatory actions.

Comments are closed.