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The Graduate Employees’ Organization and some faculty members at the University of Michigan are calling on the administration to pivot to remote learning, or “e-pivot,” for the first two weeks of the semester in an effort to curb the recent skyrocket in COVID-19 Omicron cases.

On Wednesday, GEO hosted a press conference via Zoom to announce they would take matters into their own hands, teaching remotely until cases return to a more manageable level

Rebekah Modrak, professor of Art & Design, said the combination of rising hospitalizations, no remote options for students who test positive for COVID-19 and Ann Arbor Public Schools going online for the week of Jan. 3 outweigh the harms of two weeks of virtual learning. 

“If we are willing to look at the present reality, not as we may ideally want it to be, but as it is, what we see is that instructors are reporting high-numbers of frantic emails from students notifying them of an infection, a need to isolate, or delays in their travel plans,” Modrak said.

Positive COVID-19 cases at the University are currently at their highest since February 2021. The U.S. also recently reported over one million new daily COVID-19 cases on Jan. 4.    

Lecturers’ Employee Organization president Kirsten Herold, who was also present at the press conference, said while the Fall 2021 semester was successful, too much is unknown about the omicron variant of COVID-19 to mandate in-person instruction. 

“A lot of (LEO) members want to teach in-person,” Herold said. “We are calling on the administration to allow instructor discretion – at least for the first few weeks … . We find the distrust in faculty members to make the right choice really disheartening.”   

Prior to Wednesday’s press conference, GEO held an emergency general membership meeting Tuesday to discuss the University’s decision to have an in-person semester. After the meeting, GEO sent an email, which was obtained by The Daily, to their members, saying 95% of attendees voted to endorse a motion to support an e-pivot. 

GEO president Joey Valle said at the press conference that hybrid learning is inevitable due to high numbers of faculty members and students testing positive for COVID-19 and having to quarantine. Valle said the complications with resuming in-person learning outweigh the potential benefits. 

“The University has repeatedly made the claim that classrooms are safe and there’s no transmission in classrooms, however after repeated asking, they have not provided the evidence of that,” Valle said. “ The University’s stance that people need to be in person … despite many unknowns on how omicron is transmitted within our University’s campus represents a situation that is very concerning for many of our members.” 

The GEO conference comes after U-M faculty penned an open letter to the campus community Monday advocating for a short period of remote learning at the beginning of the term. The rapid spread of the omicron variant has led 1,475 community members to ask for remote instruction, according to the letter.  

The letter highlights similar concerns from students, faculty and families as hospitals are overwhelmed with positive cases. The letter says while the University as an institution continues to push for in-person instruction, the e-pivot is something faculty and students are personally deciding to participate in on the individual level.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The Michigan Daily in an email that the signatories to the open letter represent a small percentage of faculty on the University’s campus and those who signed the letter aren’t necessarily instructors or planning on moving their classes remotely. According to Fitzgerald, the University has 5,200 instructors teaching classes to more than 50,000 students this term. 

“A classroom at U-M is, perhaps, the safest place to be in the entire state of Michigan,” Fitzgerald wrote. “As noted on our public dashboard, 98 percent of all students are vaccinated, 98 percent of faculty are fully vaccinated and there is an indoors (sic) masking requirement across the campus.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, GEO Secretary SN Yeager said they would like to see the University reassess their decision for in-person learning after the e-pivot time period is over.

“I would hope that they would realize that they have not been transparent,” Yeager said. “They have not considered anyone they say that they’re considering in these plans and … I would like to see (the University) reassess their insistence that everyone be in person because saying everything’s in person when we’re all (individually) switching to remote is just ridiculous.”

At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, GEO went on strike for two weeks in response to the University’s reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Yeager later told The Daily in an email that the organization’s members do not plan to go on strike right now and would rather continue teaching, but in a safer manner.

“Graduate students come to this university in part because we want to teach, which is what we’re currently doing right now, even if we’re doing so virtually,” Yaeger wrote. “So GEO’s current focus is not a job action, but supporting graduate students who are teaching, no matter what modality they choose.”

Yeager said in order for GEO to go on strike, a majority of members currently employed by the University as Graduate Student Instructors or Graduate Student Staff Assistants would need to vote to do so. 

LSA junior Annie Mintun, speaker of the Central Student Government assembly, said at the press conference that she sees the e-pivot as an opportunity for students to have access to learning during an uncertain semester. Mintun, who is currently quarantining due to a COVID-19 exposure, said the e-pivot would be one of the only ways she could participate in her classes. 

“The only confidence I had that I would actually be able to actually participate this (week) was when I heard that instructors were coming together to provide online options for students like me who are in quarantine,” Mintun said. “I hope that the University will not punish these instructors who are taking it upon themselves to try and protect their students.”    

Valle said while there have been no documented cases of retaliation against faculty members who decided to e-pivot, there have been emails from faculty discouraging remote instruction. Valle also said if COVID-19 conditions continue to deteriorate, there is potential for the e-pivot to extend beyond two weeks. 

“The decision to make this a two week e-pivot was made democratically, rising out of faculty concern,” Valle said. “If we are in largely a similar situation two weeks from now, I imagine similar democratic processes might extend the e-pivot.” 

University President Mark Schlissel and University Provost Susan Collins also sent an email to the U-M community Monday — two days before the start of the semester —  reiterating the University’s commitment to an in-person start on Jan. 5 and reminding students to continue masking indoors and self-report the mandated COVID-19 booster shots. 

“We expect these first few weeks of the semester to be challenging and ask everyone to care for yourselves and for one another by staying safe and practicing kindness during what will be a stressful time for many,” Schlissel and Collins wrote. “Cases are very likely to increase, regardless of decisions we make about in-person work or classes.”

In reference to Schlissel and Collins’ email, Silke-Maria Weineck, professor of comparative literature and German studies, told The Daily that the two narratives of taking care of each other while also teaching in person do not seem to coincide, and many faculty members will choose to prioritize their health and safety over in-person classes.

“We got an email from Schlissel (on Wednesday) that said, ‘please be kind to each other, support each other, do what’s good for you, but also teach in person,” Weineck said. “It seems these two directives are incompatible. And I think many of us will choose to take the second part of the message: be good to yourself and be kind to others over the in person directive just for a little while.”

Daily News Editors Kaitlyn Luckoff, Nadir Al-Saidi and George Weykamp can be reached at kluckoff@umich.edu , alsaidin@umich.edu  and gweykamp@umich.edu.