UCWVA Responds to UVA Decision Approving In-Person Instruction

Today, the University of Virginia announced that they will continue ahead with their disastrous reopening plan for the Fall semester, inviting thousands of students back to Charlottesville to attend a portion of classes in-person. Despite recent calls from students, workers, and a number of Charlottesville community organizations to move the semester online, the administration has elected to once again ignore us. While the University’s justifications for this decision are perhaps well-intentioned, their reasoning remains deeply flawed.

  1. The University claims to value an “on Grounds” experience, but also admits that students who come back to Charlottesville will be subjected to constant surveillance and monitoring, with strict consequences for violation of public health measures. Their movements will be limited; they will not be able to freely congregate with their friends. They have already effectively been deputized to surveil and punish one another. This is not a nurturing “on Grounds” experience by any stretch of the imagination.
  2. As graduate instructors and faculty well know, online learning is indeed no substitute for an in-person experience. But when that in-person experience comes at the high price of illness (with potentially permanent effects) or death, we will gladly sacrifice those benefits to protect our students and ourselves. As one instructor said, learning is difficult online, but it’s also difficult “if you are dead or in a ventilator.”
  3. The University of Virginia believes that its exceptional management and unique student body will prevent a similar outbreak in Charlottesville to those that have happened at UNCU-MichiganNotre DameAuburn, and elsewhere. We do not feel this confidence is supported by conditions on the ground. Already, workers are noting UVA students’ lack of compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing protocol. Already, local businesses are expressing concern over how to manage “uncomfortable situations” with students returning. Already, Dean Groves has needed to publicly reprimand students for gathering in large numbers over the summer. We believe thousands more students returning to Grounds will worsen these conditions–not improve them.
  4. The University makes the argument that since most students live in Charlottesville regardless of reopening plans, it is better to invite students to Grounds to “feel connected to our community.” We applaud the goal of supporting connectedness in an isolating and alienating time, but as we have already seen in many areas across the country this year, pressing ahead with a return to ‘normalcy’ during this pandemic only achieves the opposite. What we build when we move ahead as normally as possible is not a community, but a clear picture of who can afford to play at normalcy and who cannot. It is a deeply alienating picture, and we are seeing it already as the University’s plan to reopen leaves behind its most vulnerable members: Black and Latinx workers and neighbors, RAs and facilities staff, disabled and immunocompromised students and employees, and many others.

In their announcement, the University have themselves made clear that they know we will be “disappointed” in their decision. We are not merely “disappointed.” We are afraid for the safety of our neighbors and loved ones, heartbroken at the potential for loss of health and life, and above all, angry at the University administration for setting aside the safety of thousands in exchange for what will likely be a few short weeks of limited in-person instruction. UVA’s own COVID tracker website has shown cases rising since the start of the semester; while the administration continues to claim that “the case numbers remain manageable,” there is no knowing what will happen when thousands more are invited back to Grounds. 

We would, of course, like to take the University at its word that it is doing what it thinks is in the best interests of the community. Yet it is difficult to ignore that this path is also what is best for the University’s bank accounts. We are living through what happens when a public institution of higher education puts aside any pretense at democracy, any shred of responsibility towards the community it lives in, any sense of obligation towards those who make it run. United Campus Workers of Virginia are here to say no more! We deserve a safe, just, and equitable University with worker power at the center, rather than administrative greed.

While the University has declared its intention to make Fall 2020 as close to a “normal” semester as possible—meaning that workers will be underpaid, students will be exploited, and the greater Charlottesville community will be steamrolled, all in the interests of the University’s public reputation and its bottom line—we, the United Campus Workers at the University of Virginia, reiterate our demands:

  • That the University immediately reverse its decision and commit to a fully online semester and provide all undergraduates with an opt-out plan for housing.
  • That the University deploy the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) to enact a firing freeze and end the hiring freeze.
  • That the University use the SIF to suspend and prevent all budget-saving measures that harm workers, such as furloughs and benefit suspensions.
  • That the University open the books, and immediately make all financial decisions transparent and democratic. 
  • That the University enact a tuition freeze.
  • That the University commit to compensating workers for lost on-campus pay.
  • That the University provide hazard pay to all workers who must work in-person, including student RAs.
  • That the University provide free, accessible, and timely COVID-19 testing to all workers (to protect themselves and others).
  • That the University expand healthcare benefits by reducing premiums, enhancing coverage, and lowering deductibles.
  •  That the University provide protections and more virtual options for disabled workers, those with a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, and those caring for high risk individuals.
  •  That the University enforce whistleblower protections for all workers.
  •  That the University take proactive steps and utilize the full force of UVA’s legal resources to protect international and undocumented workers from further legislative and/or executive attacks.
  •  That the University defund and dismantle the University Police Department (UPD).
  • That the University support the goals and fulfill the demands of:
  •  That the University express public support for the right of university employees to organize, strike, and collectively bargain.

We want to close not simply in sadness and anger, but in conviction. Regardless of what the University ultimately chooses to do, UCWVA is committed to playing its part in protecting our community. We commit to supporting and generating networks of mutual aid. We commit to being a resource for grievance and the safe reporting of public health concerns. We commit to holding one another accountable without resorting to policing or surveillance. Once again, UVA has shown that it does not keep us safe. We keep us safe.

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