UF GAU, UFF demand COVID-19 safety protocols

by Bryn Taylor, UF-Graduate Assistants United Communications Chair

Almost 12,000 new students arrived on campus in late August with 32,329 active COVID-19 cases in Alachua County. 

UF expected faculty, staff, and graduate assistants to teach in-person, full-capacity classes with no university policies to enforce any kind of health and safety protocol. GAU and UFF rallied outside Tigert Hall and listed the following demands:

1. Mask mandate on campus

2. Vaccination mandate on campus

3. First three weeks of classes online

4. Transparent reporting of campus COVID-19 cases

PhD candidate and GAU Co-President Rachel Hartnett spoke on her personal experience as a chronically ill worker at the university. 

“I have several chronic health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, which puts me at increased risk of serious illness due to COVID,” she said. 

“Diabetics are among the group of people for whom the FDA just approved vaccination boosters. Just yesterday, I learned that my ADA request to teach my fall course remotely had been denied by UF’s Office for Accessibility and Gender Equity. I qualified for remote teaching last Spring, but now apparently do not because I am vaccinated. This is despite the fact that in spring, masks and social distancing were required, and the Delta variant has proven to be far more contagious than the original strain.”

She cited the fact that while 95 percent of people hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, the other 5 percent consists primarily of people with chronic conditions that weaken the immune system’s response to the vaccine. 

Many faculty members and graduate assistants are terrified that, due to the lack of necessary safety protections, this disease will render them seriously ill, hospitalized, or dead.

UF has claimed that the decision to mandate masks and social distancing is out of their hands. While this may be true, the decision to protect their most vulnerable faculty, staff, and students is not. Those with chronic conditions that place them at increased risk of serious illness due to COVID must be allowed to teach remotely, at least until booster shots for the vaccine become available on Sept. 20. 

Remote accommodations should be broad and sweeping, as much of the work to turn UF into a remote campus has already been done. Faculty and graduate assistants have worked tirelessly to convert course content into a format that can be taught in a safe way, either online or through social distancing in the classroom. 

Additionally, research schedules have already been changed so shared lab spaces and offices can be used responsibly. Many labs continue to maintain these protocols so we can feel confident about going home to care for our young children, sick parents, or immunocompromised loved ones. We do this to ensure our own safety, the safety of our students and our community.

People with chronic health conditions have largely been treated as disposable during this pandemic. Our health and safety are being held hostage by a governor who cares not about our communities, but about keeping his position in office. This is amplified by UF leadership who are far too comfortable with ignoring what is right in order to keep their own positions of power. 

Graduate assistants are at the mercy of their departments and the faculty they work with. For some of us, this is a comfort because we know our departments will protect us in whatever ways they can. Others do not have the same reassurances within their programs.

For some graduate assistants, the chance to seek safety in our own homes is not a feasible one. Graduate student housing has been a known place of quarantine for students on campus. This poses an especially huge danger to international graduate students and graduate student families. 

We are doing our part to stand up against leadership who refuse to listen to the advice of public health experts, and we will continue to fight for the common-sense right to public health and safety requirements like wearing a mask and getting vaccinated. As Rachel Hartnett stated: graduate assistants and faculty “will not die to protect UF’s funding.”

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