'I can’t teach if I’m dead:' UB graduate students protest return to campus

UB TAs demand university-wide policy on in-person courses, frequent and accessible COVID-19 testing.

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Tombstone-shaped picket signs marked the grounds of UB’s south campus lawn on Friday morning, August 14. But as of September 3, UB administrators have remained dead silent about the grim presentation. 

The eerie display was the UB Living Stipend Movement’s “Campus Graveyard" demonstration in collaboration with X-Campus Rank. 

The grassroots organization plastered a banner over a UB sign at the intersection of Main Street and Bailey Avenue which read: “Campus Graveyard: we will die if UB chooses profit over safety.” Below, messages like “I can’t teach if I’m dead” and “COVID Kills” flanked both sides of the South Campus marker. 

“We set up the demonstration by 7 a.m. on August 14 and when I drove by the location at 11 a.m. on August 15 it was no longer there,” English graduate student Lawrence Mullen said. “UB’s administration did not reach out to us to respond [to our demands] in any way.” 

The morbid back-to-school warning disappeared a day after its installation, yet its messages continue haunting graduate students. Following its August 31 fall semester reopening, UB confirmed 46 COVID-19 cases among its faculty, student and staff while operating under a “modified in-person” instructional format, according to the university’s COVID-19 Dashboard. Members of the Living Stipend Movement planted the signs to protest UB’s prioritization of “student retention and generating revenue” over the “safety of graduate student workers,” according to an August press release from the Living Stipend Movement. 

English TA demonstrators Lawrence Mullen and Joey Sechrist sent an email to UB administrators demanding that UB make greater efforts to administer COVID-19 tests to community members and enact a university-wide policy that allows TAs and RAs a choice between teaching online or in person without fear of “retaliation” from their department, and without having to reveal personal health-related conditions to their supervisor. Although they have received no direct response, UB has changed its policy on coronavirus testing by adopting random surveillance testing of saliva samples from students, faculty and staff, following mounting public criticism and rising coronavirus cases within the UB community. 

 UB’s COVID-19 dashboard tracks the university's coronavirus cases. Administrators originally intended to update the webpage weekly on Mondays at 2 p.m., but officials have posted daily coronavirus case updates over the past three days after stating that the university’s tracker would be “updated more frequently if cases become prevalent at the university.” The dashboard was last updated on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., a day after the webpage’s last update on Monday evening after UB learned that an additional 19 off-campus students and one employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. A combined 13 students are also currently in on-campus isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 or are in quarantine as they await testing results.  

A State University of New York institution must shut down for two weeks if more than 100 people in the university community or five percent of on-site students and faculty test positive for the coronavirus, according to state officials. 

Before UB reopened, Sechrist worried that reported cases would rise if UB tried to offer students a traditional “university experience” by keeping campus classrooms and dorms open. 

“Essentially by opening up classes based on [offering] the experience of going to university, rather than [offering courses based on] the physical necessity to be in a lab, [it’s obvious that UB] is just choosing which courses to offer in person for the sake of student retention. That's essentially telling the workers, ‘we are going to risk your safety, in order to hold these classes for the sake of student retention,’” Sechrist said .

Students like Sechrist were especially concerned that largely mandatory courses like ENG 105 were originally planned as priority, in-person classes, despite the fact that UB successfully offered English 105 virtually after UB’s transition to distance learning last March. 

“They were going to make English 105, a designated priority class which [means that] they were going to have it in person. English 105 is what a lot of early year teaching assistants teach in the English Program,” Sechrist said.

The English department ultimately decided not to host English 105 on-campus after TAs told writing instructor Elizabeth Mazzolini that they felt uncomfortable teaching the course in person. The absence of a university-wide policy on in-person classes, however, has made it difficult for TAs in other departments to advocate for their personal safety without fear of departmental retribution.

“We had to depend on our department to advocate for us. We couldn't advocate for ourselves. That was a real problem and that's what we were worried about. Other programs and other departments did not give students a choice and did not come to them to ask for their input,”  Sechrist said.

While UB has established the COVID-19 Advisory Committee to map out health and safety guidelines and multiple contingency plans for the fall, Living Stipend Movement member Lawrence Mullen says the administration's response to TA concerns did little to set them at ease to return to campus.

They felt immensely concerned for “students whose coursework is not entirely online” after hearing that “only 57 percent” of UB’s fall courses would be held online during an August 5 town hall. They also felt that the meeting’s members answered primarily “softball questions” and ignored Living Stipend Movement members’ questions. 

“The questions addressed [at the town hall] were really more or less softball questions like why should you wear a mask. ...we’re specifically concerned more with the fact that undergraduates returning to campus have their own rooms and have access to their own bathrooms, but these are things that you just can’t achieve in communal campus living situations,” Mullen said.  “We asked [questions about these concerns] in advance but they weren't answered...That's ultimately why we ended up doing the demonstration.”

Mullen and their peers still worry that many of the university’s plans are aimed at slowing the spread of the virus through unenforceable measures, rather than preventing its transmission by going fully online. 

“We are not confident in [state] safety procedures. We know that there's research that was presented to the CDC in early July that kind of that was very cautious. Essentially stating that very tiny droplets can stay in the air can infect people from greater distances farther than six feet, even if they're wearing a mask that's not a certified fitting and 95 net mask. So having people congregating in a shared space is not ideal,” Sechrist said.

Shifting COVID-19 Testing Plans 

On September 1, UB announced its plan to perform surveillance testing in the UB community using saliva samples from a randomized group of on-campus students.  

The announcement marked a change in the university’s approach to the management of the coronavirus on its campuses, as UB initially “refused to add baseline and surveillance testing to their [reopening] plan,” according to UB Professor of Surgery and Management Philip Glick. 

Syracuse University, SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry, SUNY Upstate Medical University implemented a pilot plan in partnership with The New York State Department of Health and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to test for “early warning indicators” of COVID-19 in wastewater systems, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s August 14 announcement launching a series of coronavirus testing initiatives. 

On that same day, Cuomo also approved the use of pooled surveillance testing for COVID-19 as a “cost-effective and rapid screening” tool capable of analyzing “more than 15,000 samples per day,” according to an August 14 SUNY News press release

The testing method, which allows for 10 to 25 people to be screened in one test using saliva samples, was adopted by SUNY Albany, SUNY Purchase and SUNY Plattsburgh before the start of the fall semester. 

In an article about UB’s fall reopening plans published by Spectrum News on May 6, UB Provost A. Scott Weber agreed for the need for regular testing, saying, "Really the only way to ensure [the UB community’s safety] is to be really ready to do some sort of full-scale testing across the campus that's rapid and readily available, so that we can understand the level and be able to respond very, very quickly should anything arise that needs to be addressed quickly.” 

But in July, Weber said “every day” testing was “not feasible.” 

“I think initially the idea was everybody would have to be tested every day and that simply is not feasible and it probably doesn’t give you the picture you probably need,” Weber said in a article published by The Buffalo News on July 15. 

In an August 30 op-ed for The Buffalo News, Glick wrote that UB’s administration remained “defiant” about testing community members, even when “cost-effective” and “readily available” testing was available. 

“They have remained defiant, even when cost-effective and readily available pooled saliva testing was offered to President Satish Tripathi by state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on Aug. 5. At least 10 other SUNY campuses have availed themselves of pooled testing being performed cost effectively and with sufficient capacity by SUNY Upstate,” wrote Glick.

Two days after the publication of Glick’s letter, nearly a week after students returned to campus and nearly a month after Zucker proposed the pooled testing option to Tripathi, UB announced it would launch coronavirus surveillance testing. UB will begin random COVID-19 surveillance testing of hundreds of students, faculty and staff next week in partnership with Upstate Medical Center beginning, according to a September 1 email to the UB community. UB researchers will pool the collected samples in batches of 12, according to The Buffalo News.

Mullen believes that UB’s earlier reluctance to test students demonstrated UB’s prioritization of profits over student lives.

“There are still health and safety guidelines in place, but if two students or three students get sick or die, that's a risk they're willing to take if it means that, ultimately, they'll still come out with some sort of profit at the end of the semester,” Mullen said. 

Sechrist, however, thinks there is still time for UB to save lives by taking into account the voices of its graduate students. 

“Considering the changes that have happened this semester...we should have free access to testing,” Sechrist said. “I don't think it's too late for the university to make these policies at the university level.” 

ELIZABETH NAPOLITANO


Elizabeth "Liz" Napolitano is the senior news editor for The Spectrum. She's an optimistic pessimist who found her love for journalism in Ecuador. She likes late night walks and reading Twitter threads in their entirety.