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Graduate students face more limited options for if they will teach online or in-person next fall, potentially putting them at higher risk for getting sick.

August 6, 2020

Graduate Students Concerned For Their Safety as Fall Semester Approaches

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Graduate students are unsatisfied with what they see as Cornell’s general lack of clear communication and de-prioritization of their needs.

Forty-seven percent of professional students, 57 percent of M.S. students and 69 percent of Ph.D. students are worried about their health and safety at Cornell this fall, according to a survey coordinated by a collective of seven graduate and professional students.

Graduate students want the choice to teach online, and are specifically concerned about the lack of paid long-term sick leave and clear guidelines around work requirements.

Compared to professors and undergraduate students — who can choose the format of the classes they teach and take — graduate students don’t have the same opportunity to opt-out of in-person work. Graduate students also lack guaranteed long-term paid sick leave, which could have financial consequences for graduate students who fall seriously ill with COVID-19.

“I worry for my fellow graduate students who are unable to get out of in-person teaching responsibilities,” said Stephanie Tepper grad. “Many graduate students also live with spouses, children and/or roommates and are deeply embedded in the Ithaca community. As a result, graduate students are at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 to much more vulnerable members of our community.”

According to Jeff Pea grad, graduate students can apply for accommodations through Student Disability Services. While SDS took steps to be more accessible for the upcoming semester, some graduate students said that handling teaching accommodation requests is not a good use of SDS’ time.

“Not only is having graduate student TAs go through SDS a barrier to safety for TAs, it’s unfairly burdening SDS with work when they’re already going to be pushed hard to fulfill their mission in general,” said Tim Luttermoser grad.

The administration recommended that students speak with their advisers and professors they work for to develop alternative accommodations — but this is easier said than done, according to Pea.

“There is a power dynamic here,” Pea said. “You are talking to someone who is paying you, advising you and is ultimately your advocate and hopefully long-standing supporter beyond graduate school.”

International students may be particularly unwilling to risk angering advisers because their immigration status relies on their continued enrollment, potentially leaving them more vulnerable to coercive professors who want them to work in person, said Kavya Krishnan grad.

In the case of coercion, administrators advise graduate students to call EthicsPoint, a third party anonymous hotline. However, these resources can go underutilized. Over half of students did not know who they would turn to in the case of coercion, according to a survey of graduate and professional students conducted in May.

Adding on to health concerns, graduate students may also face financial hardship if they need to stop teaching. Cornell recently stated that it does not guarantee the continuation of a graduate assistantship stipend in the case of a prolonged absence due to illness or grief, recommending a leave of absence instead.

“It seems weird in the context of a pandemic, where we are at risk for an illness that could put you out of commission for a while,” Pea said. “That [paid sick leave] seems like a pretty glaring omission, especially considering we are being put more at risk to protect faculty.”

Pea preferred an opt-in system for teaching, with the default option to teach online in order to remove the burden of documentation and evening the power dynamics.

In response to recent graduate student activism, over 20 departments agreed to let graduate students teach remotely without going through the general graduate student accommodation process. These departments include math, psychology, ecology and evolutionary biology, computer science, physics, economics and history.

Cornell repeated its official position that pedagogy and curriculum decisions should be made at the department level rather than the University level, praising individual departments for making their own choices while declining to make a University-wide policy.

Natalie Hofmeister grad, a representative of the unofficial graduate student union Cornell Graduate Students United, expressed concerns that graduate students will be overworked to help convert class materials to a digital format but won’t be fairly compensated for it. Cornell recommends that graduate students speak to their advisers for this scenario.

“Grads end up working a lot more than what they are paid to work, and they won’t be paid for more than 15 hours a week,” Hofmeister said.

Although the University advises graduate students to refer undergraduates to University resources if they are in psychological distress, Krishnan still worries about the mental health of both undergraduate and graduate students during the pandemic.

“The dread caused by the looming possibility of you or a peer potentially testing positive, the lack of in-person experiences like dining together, the constraints on travelling out of Ithaca to be with family etc. will all take a toll on our students,” Krishnan said. “For resident advisers and TAs who will have to manage their own mental health along with supporting their students, this will be even more taxing.”