With temperatures just now breaking 40 degrees and midterm season in full swing, it’s hard to believe that it’s already time to think about the fall 2021 semester. In a few short weeks, we’ll be registering for classes and incoming freshmen will be sending in their enrollment deposits. There is light at the end of this slog of a winter semester. University of Michigan administrators have stated that they are optimistic for a more normal fall semester, with some precautions still in place.
While it would seem nearly impossible to have a clusterfuck of fall 2020 proportions again, I would caution incoming freshmen and current students alike from getting too optimistic about the upcoming semester.
According to Rackham student Ryan Glauser, Graduate Employees’ Organization COVID Caucus Co-Chair, GEO had not been contacted by administrators about planning for the fall 2021 semester prior to the University announcing its optimism. On March 1, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote to The Daily that Human Resources ended up contacting LEO and GEO to discuss their input for the fall semester, and Glauser confirmed that the GEO heard from HR on March 1. But Glauser explained that GEO’s position is that there should be no in-person classes until all Graduate Student Instructors can be vaccinated. If that can happen by August, returning to face-to-face instruction is a real conversation. And to be fair, all conversations about fall reopening plans consider vaccine roll-out to be a major variable in what the semester will ultimately look like. But most GSIs fall in Phase 2 for vaccine eligibility, the standard category that encompasses everyone over 16, but Michigan is only vaccinating phases 1a and 1b right now. Phase 2 is currently predicted to start in August, and that’s without taking into account that due to limited supply, Michigan Medicine has barely given out any first vaccine doses in weeks.
Lecturer Cindee Giffen, a member of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization of the President and Provost COVID-19 Faculty Council , said LEO’s members vary in terms of their preference for an in-person fall semester. She pointed out that lecturers, who often carry a higher teaching load than tenure-track faculty, are really feeling the burden of the extra work needed to make Zoom classes work. LEO is arguing for modality choice for the fall, as most lecturers fall in the same Phase 2 vaccination category as GSIs. Giffen echoed much of the administration’s optimism but noted that if the vaccine picture doesn’t improve soon, the message may need to take on a more modest tone.
My hope, even bigger than in-person classes, is that the conversations between the labor unions and the University are productive and not merely performative. Optimism about the fall feels good. I want to trust it and you want to trust it, but the problem is that the University of Michigan has simply not earned that trust.
Who has earned that trust? Well, I can’t help but think back to the GEO strike in the fall. They were right to point out the significant deficiencies in the COVID-19 planning. Rather than engage with the GEO substantively, the University threatened them with legal action and then begrudgingly took some of their suggestions into consideration (like increased testing) — months and thousands of positive tests later. My personal interests, specifically the ability to learn and work safely, are much more closely aligned with the graduate students and lecturers than they are with the administration’s bottom-line interests.
LEO, like GEO, lamented back in the fall that they had not been “properly consulted” about the fall 2020 plan and that information about the plan had been withheld. There is definitely still time before the fall semester begins, and it appears those conversations and consultations may be had soon, but it does give me pause that “optimism” was announced before consulting the labor organizations. I am in my seventh semester here and have had only a handful of classes that didn’t rely on lecturer or graduate student labor. Both groups are critical to undergraduate education here at the University of Michigan. Without their full buy-in and input, we may be looking at another tumultuous summer and early fall, in which case, Glauser predicted, the University will “argue that labor is trying to hurt the freshman.”
Perhaps the University learned its lesson from the fall. Surely, they must have learned some lessons. No matter the modality, I hope we return to classes with GSIs and lecturers who feel safe teaching their classes and are heard by their administrators. I hope vaccine roll-out ramps up. But I’ve been let down too many times. For now, I am tempering my optimism and would advise others to do the same.
Jessie Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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