On her first day back teaching an undergraduate class in person at the University of Florida, one graduate teaching assistant wrestled with how often to tell her students to keep their masks above their noses, the best way to keep in-classroom students from mocking their classmate for wanting to attend virtually and how to stop students from breaking their socially distanced assigned seats.
“I felt at the time I couldn’t really just kick them out,” said the young worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, in an interview. “I didn’t expect there to be that much flagrant disrespect. They were just kind of talking to each other and commenting on how much they didn’t like the situation.”
Faculty and staff at the University of Florida have been at odds with school leaders since the start of the year over increasing its number of in-person classes to appease students who want face-to-face learning. Instructors are troubled that administrators could be more concerned about financial impacts than science and health as denials for American Disabilities Act accommodations rolled in against a backdrop of the campus’s safety app that now has a feature allowing students to report an instructor for not showing up to class and warnings against protesting.
The options for those who feel unsafe are pretty limited, multiple graduate workers told The Washington Post.
The graduate teaching assistant has been hunkered down with her immunocompromised partner since last spring, but Florida’s reopening of hybrid instruction, which includes reduced in-person and virtual learning, could jeopardize the protection she was hoping to provide her partner, she said.
Jason Crider, 30, a doctoral candidate in the English department, said that in many ways, he feels like he “has a gun” to his head when it comes to choosing between working and prioritizing his and his wife’s health.
“They told the students that they were welcome to attend virtually if they didn’t feel safe or sign up for the face-to-face option,” he said. “But they told faculty members and staff they had to be there.”
The Type 1 diabetic was denied temporary accommodations by the school’s ADA review team without an explanation, according to a review of the Nov. 2 document shared with The Post.
The university’s enhanced classroom safeguards, which includes KN-95 masks, face shields and physical distancing in classrooms, meant that his “request to work remotely was not approved as a reasonable accommodation,” according to the letter.
Type 1 diabetes or gestational diabetes might increase the risk of severe illness from covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The university has specified that a person with a medical condition identified as “at increased risk” could have an accommodation, and Crider’s wasn’t on the school’s list of illness.
Crider’s denial isn’t unique among graduate workers or faculty who are trying to figure out ways to stay safe and provide quality education, according to Susan Hegeman, a spokesperson for the University of Florida chapter of United Faculty of Florida.
Hegeman said in a statement that the union has been in contact with 58 faculty members who requested accommodations but were denied, adding that 10 were later granted accommodations on appeal.
“The university COVID-ADA process denied many accommodation requests up front. They offered no accommodations for advanced age or for conditions that might pose increased risk for serious disease from covid, such as asthma and Type 1 diabetes,” she said in the statement. “There was no accommodation process for caretakers or family members of people at high risk for covid. This has caused a great deal of anxiety for many faculty.”
Bobby Mermer, co-president of Graduate Assistants United, a union for graduate workers at the university, said fewer than 100 requested accommodations in all were denied.
“Faculty are in precarious positions, but my members are in a more precarious position to be sure,” he said, adding that their low wages make them less likely to skip work. “It could’ve been everyone who asked for a remote [assignment] could’ve be been afforded one.”
Both unions have been deeply critical of how the school’s administration has handled reopening a campus that had more than 5,600 covid-19 cases as of Dec. 11, according to New York Times data.
Alachua County, where the university is seated, has reported more than 19,408 cases since the outset of the pandemic. More than 84% of its available hospital beds for covid-19 are occupied, according to county data.
Despite data that’s alarming some faculty members, the school hasn’t set benchmarks that would make instruction switch back to only online, according to Steve Orlando, assistant vice president of communications for the university.
Students enrolled for in-person classes increased from about 14,000 in the fall semester to about 25,000 – less than half total enrollment – this semester, he said, adding that the campus has ramped up its testing for faculty and students who live on campus or attend in-person classes and checked ventilation to make sure it meets CDC standards.
“There was no evidence of transmission during the fall semester,” he said. “We had about 1,100 instructors in classes and labs and only four reported cases.”
None of the four cases among instructors teaching in the fall were transmitted in the classroom, Orlando said.
The university has a less-than-1.5% positive rate of infection so far this semester, according to Orlando.
To ensure instructors show up to class regardless of their concerns or pending ADA requests, the school has urged faculty to log in to classroom computers as a sign of attendance and has updated the school’s safety app, GatorSAFE, to include an option that lets students report an instructor for missing class.
The faculty union has argued that the app’s feature could violate the contract it has with the school as faculty themselves label it a “snitch app” and chide the new feature for its potentially divisive outcomes, student newspaper the Alligator reported.
Reports from the app will be directed to academic affairs and forwarded to a team who will have the discretion to determine disciplinary action.
“This is blatantly an affront to our academic freedom,” Crider said of the app and the suggestion that faculty shouldn’t encourage online options. “This is Orwellian. What’s more Big Brother than a snitch app?”
Crider has yet to receive an update about his ADA accommodation request. He was just cleared to be on campus as of Friday after reporting symptoms more than a week ago.
Because striking or staging collective movements, such as walkouts or sickouts, is not allowed for public employees in the state of Florida, the university might be pushing frustrated staff to enter a work-to-rule phase – in which employees do the minimum required – to express their displeasure, Mermer said.
For the graduate instructor who was too worried about facing consequences to identify herself, the only option she sees is reiterating safety concerns to her class and hoping the virus doesn’t become a concern again.
“It’s unsafe there’s not a definite point in which there’s too much [spread],” she said.