Graduate student group stages protests as Ohio State resumes on-campus classes

Andy Downing
The Ohio Union at the Ohio State University, photographed on March 22, 2020.

Following a summer of coronavirus-driven uncertainty, Ohio State opted to resume in-person instruction when the new semester kicked off today. This despite concerns expressed by students, teachers and other school faculty, many of whom are anxious about the potential of contracting or spreading COVID-19 within the classroom.

The return unfolds as other universities that attempted in-person classes have shifted to online instruction following campus COVID outbreaks.Notre Dame moved classes online for at least two weeks after 147 people tested positive for the coronavirus, just days afterUNC at Chapel Hill canceled in-person classes when more than 130 students contracted the virus just a week after resuming on-campus instruction.

Amid these circumstances, it’s understandable that OSU graduate students, many of whom teach undergrad courses, are hesitant to resume work in-person. To bring greater attention to the issue, the Graduate Student Labor Coalition (GSLC), a group that formed in May and is composed of roughly 200 grad students, will stage a series of protests today, including a car caravan, which will circle the campus for an hour beginning at 1:30 p.m., as well as a socially distanced afternoon rally outside of Bricker Hall.

“We wanted to do something that would be highly visible on campus, because so far everything we’ve done has been virtual, which can be easier to ignore,” said Kathryn Holt, a PhD candidate in the Department of Dance and a spokesperson for GSLC.

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Holt said that GSLC formed in the early spring as she and her fellow grad students started to grow more concerned with the impact that COVID-19 could have on their livelihoods, with early discussions centered on budget cuts that could impact everything from lab work to living circumstances, as well as the dangers of resuming in-person instruction.

“A lot of my colleagues, other graduate students, are … having to go back to teaching in-person when they don’t necessarily feel safe doing so, and not feeling like they have a say in it,” said Holt, noting thatthe university has allowed graduate instructors to apply for health-related accommodations rather than offering a more universal, blanket opt-out. “The Council of Graduate Students held three forums with administrators this week, and my feeling is that they’re listening, but they’re not really hearing us, so often their responses are kind of like half measures.”

“Ohio State has adopted extensive health and safety measures to support the return to our campuses this fall, relying both on our public health and medical experts and the leading science nationally about COVID-19,” Benjamin Johnson, director of media relations, media and PR, said in an emailed statement. “The university has engaged with graduate students throughout the planning process for the autumn semester, and we will continue to work with the Council of Graduate Students to address their concerns.”

Moving forward, Holt said GSLC regards a suspension of in-person classes as inevitable, noting the cancellations at Notre Dame and UNC, among other schools, though she added that Ohio State has not offered any concrete benchmarks in terms of case numbers that could lead officials to close campus. “‘There are many factors we’re looking at’ is all they really say,” Holt said. (“Any decision about adjusting our plans will be made on the totality of the facts, in consultation with public health authorities, and based on the latest science and data,” Johnson said via email.)

“Most of the people I know who are teaching are aware that [suspension] could happen, so they’re already making backup plans for when it does, which is asking them to do twice as much work,” Holt said. “My feeling at this point is that if we had decided at the beginning of summer that class was going to go online, people would have had the whole summer to develop different ways of teaching. … Online teaching can work, but you can’t just throw the same thing onto a website and expect people to get the same thing from it as they did in person.”