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Grad students demand changes to reopening policy

Grad students call for increased flexibility, transparency during pandemic

<p>230 graduate student employees, 200 undergraduates and dozens of community members signed an open letter to University administrators enumerating concerns regarding opening plans for the spring semester.</p>

230 graduate student employees, 200 undergraduates and dozens of community members signed an open letter to University administrators enumerating concerns regarding opening plans for the spring semester.

Citing concerns over recently-announced COVID-19 testing and instruction policies, the Graduate Labor Organization formally delivered an open letter condemning University reopening plans Jan. 24. The letter, signed by more than 230 graduate student employees, 200 undergraduates and dozens of community members, urges the University “to grant graduate workers the agency to choose, without penalty, whether working in person is a risk they are willing to take.”

The letter reflects general dissatisfaction among surveyed graduate students surrounding the University’s COVID-19 policies for the spring semester. The letter cites an internal GLO survey that polled nearly 150 graduate student workers and found that 90% of respondents support classes moving online for the duration of shopping period, while 86% believe the University should provide data regarding positivity rates and 79% “want remote work options … without risk of penalty.” As of 2020, 2,600 graduate students were enrolled at the University. Seventy-six percent of surveyed graduate students support the return of optional PCR testing, which was phased out by the University in favor of rapid tests at the beginning of the semester.

“A vast, vast majority supported grads — and all staff — having the choice to work remotely … without fear of repercussion,” said Beckett Warzer GS, GLO steward for theatre and performing arts and literary arts. Warzer added that it is currently extremely difficult for graduate students to secure remote permission.

The University has defended its reopening plan in emails to graduate and undergraduate students and campus community members.


“I would like to reiterate that we believe in-person instruction is safe given our nearly universal campus vaccination rates, booster mandate, indoor masking requirements and continuing testing program,” Provost Richard Locke P’18 wrote in a Jan. 19 email to the University community.

In addition to GLO’s open letter, 34 members of the English Graduate Organization, a collective that represents graduate students in the English department, sent a letter to University administration Jan. 28 to express “opposition to the University’s ableist, racist, classist and anti-Black response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” The letter was reviewed by The Herald.

The letter, which cites disproportionate rates of illness and death among minority and low-income Rhode Island residents, accuses the University of downplaying “the risks of Omicron” and “obscuring Brown’s location within Providence and its impact on spread throughout the city and state.” 

“Brown has suggested that we should plan to get sick, implying that spread is inevitable and not a result of its own policies,” the letter continues. 

“Regardless of our own individual situations, we recognized that there was no such thing as ‘individual safety’ within the pandemic,” read an EGO statement sent to The Herald by Devon Clifton GS. “We didn’t want to see anyone get hurt because of Brown’s negligence. And, we also felt we had a duty to speak up or else be complicit in Brown’s mishandling of the pandemic.”

The letter includes a list of demands, including the option to work and study remotely, materials to support remote workers and students, reinstatement of regular PCR testing and a return to publishing positivity rates from the testing program.

EGO’s statement also expressed support for GLO’s open letter and demands.

“In regard to COVID-19 health and safety measures, it’s important to make clear that protecting the health and safety of the Brown community and the Providence and Rhode Island communities of which we are a part has been our highest priority since the onset of the pandemic,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “That remains the case as the spring semester gets underway, with carefully planned public health measures based on advice from medical experts, as well as flexibility for instructors and students, among the important factors in enabling in-person teaching and learning while preventing serious illness on and near campus.” 

Clark did not address specific claims from EGO’s letter in a statement provided to The Herald.

After some members of the graduate community voiced their concerns, Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell sent a Jan. 21 email to graduate students defending the University’s reopening plans, which The Herald reviewed. Campbell emphasized that instructors had the choice “to teach their class sections remotely for the first week of the spring semester” and reiterated the accuracy of rapid tests as opposed to PCR tests.


“Rapid antigen tests are extremely sensitive in determining if you are currently infectious,” Campbell wrote, citing a study from the University of California San Francisco that reported a 95% accuracy rate for positive test-takers.

Yet multiple graduate students who spoke to The Herald dispute the claims and rationale provided by the University. Anders Ohman GS, a pathobiology graduate student and member of GLO, said rising COVID-19 cases are cause for concern in the return to in-person activities. “If I had pressure put on me to be in in-person environments — congregate settings, high density (settings) — I would feel unsafe, absolutely,” he added.

GLO’s letter was conceived at a general meeting Jan. 18, when members convened to gauge sentiment about the plans.

“The discussion was pretty open-ended, a lot of people shared their thoughts and it all kind of came together with people expressing that they felt like the changes were a step in the wrong direction,” Ohman said.

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“The initial message that was sent out (by the University) was not providing people with, on the one hand, security, and on the other, even clarity about what was going on,” GLO Steward for Comparative Literature, German Studies, Slavic Studies and Italian Studies Andrés Gonzalez GS said. 

The University has not publicly responded to either letter. GLO’s initial demands for a remote shopping period did not prompt changes by the University, but graduate students plan to continue to push for changes such as a reinstatement of PCR testing and more flexibility with remote work, EGO's statement read.

“I think that if there’s a risk of being hospitalized at work, then it’s too much of a risk,” GLO President Rithika Ramamurthy GS said. “Not a single one of our members should be subjected to that risk.”

Caleb Lazar

Caleb Lazar is the senior editor of data desk for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board.

Charlie Clynes

Charlie Clynes is the managing editor of digital content and technology on The Herald's 134th Editorial Board. Previously, he covered University Hall and the graduate labor organization as a University News editor. A concentrator in history and applied math, he loves geography quizzes and has strong opinions about chalk.


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