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U of M faculty, staff protest over COVID-19 testing and in-person instruction

a protester at the university of michigan holds a sign that says leaders and best should test
Caroline Llanes
Michigan Radio

Some faculty and staff at the University of Michigan are worried about the influx of students returning to campus. Around 40 faculty, staff, and graduate student employees gathered in front of the administration building on Tuesday. It was the first of a planned three days of protests, asking for the administration to let faculty opt out of in-person instruction and demanding a more robust testing infrastructure for COVID-19.


Kentaro Toyama is a professor at the School of Information and the organizer of the protest. He says he does not see the return to campus going well.

“Within a week or two, as soon as students start coming back to campus and congregating, it seems likely that we will see the rates of infection rise to a point where even the current administration will not be able to justify (it)," he says. "I’ve spoken to colleagues who think we’re not going to last through September.”

Toyama says that if the University of North Carolina, which transferred to remote learning after outbreaks of COVID-19, is any indication, U of M’s plans could have to change quickly. 

He says instructors are prepared to teach, but not all feel safe doing so in-person… and that doesn’t change their commitment to the work they do.

“You know, especially as instructors and faculty, you know we are committed to the educational mission of the university. Every instructor on campus is putting in a lot of effort and what we’re really expecting is just some degree of respect and transparency,” he says.

The university does allow those faculty who have in-person classes to ask for an online format instead if they are concerned for their health and feel unsafe teaching face-to-face. Toyama pointed out that faculty and staff may have a hard time navigating that appeals process as they do not have unions to argue on their behalf like graduate student instructors and lecturers do.

On Tuesday, University of Michigan President Schlissel sent an email that explained the rationale behind the university's testing plan and other changes this fall, which he says are informed by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Michigan, and experts at the Unviersity of Michigan. The statement also highlighted the fact that 70% of credit hours will be held online. 

“The real question is why does the university feel this 30% is essential to have in some kind of in-person component,” Toyoma told Stateside on Wednesday.  “I believe that’s because that’s a credible level at which the university can claim it is open for in-person instruction, which would allow it to charge full tuition to students.”

Toyama explains he's done a lot of work this summer to make sure his students have a productive learning experience in the fall. 

“I’ve never worked this hard to get fall courses prepared, simply because the enormity of having to design a course not just for some people who want to be online, but people who want to be in person, some people who are going to be synchronously learning and some people who are going to be in a different time zone and need a mode of asynchronous learning as well," says Toyama. 

Some graduate student employees, concerned about teaching in-person classes, joined the faculty and staff in the protest.

Richard Bachmann is a PhD student in the history department and a graduate student instructor. He says a crucial part of his job as an instructor is providing a safe learning environment for students, and he’s not sure he’ll be able to do that.

“I will not be in a position to turn students away if I think they’re a health threat, right, if someone walks in without a mask and this kind of stuff. It’s a personal responsibility kind of thing. What we could do is dismiss class all together and say okay, everyone needs to go home because of this one person,” he says.

Bachmann also voiced his concerns on the health and safety procedures that employees had to go through. He had gone to campus a couple days before to receive training for conducting a hybrid class, which means some students will be in-person and some will be online.

“When we entered the building, we needed to do a health check-in, where we’re asked about COVID symptoms and stuff. I did that, and then you’re supposed to show that to someone upon entering the building, but no one looked at this," he says. "During the training, I was told that no one during the semester was going to do that. So I can’t create a safe classroom, in that sense.”

A university spokesman says U of M has given instructors flexibility in how they conduct classes this fall and it respects the right of faculty to protest things they are unhappy about.

Editor's note: The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's license.


Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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