On the first day of classes at the University of Michigan on Monday, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), a labor union that represents U of M graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, held a “die-in” in opposition to the school’s in-person reopening plan.
The organization said the demonstration was intended to “draw attention to the human cost of the University’s decision to return to a residential semester.”
U of M faculty members have advised the administration to start the fall semester virtually and improve safety protocols, such as implementing mass testing for students and staff.
However, University President Mark Schlissel has held steadfast to his plan of welcoming students back to campus and offering face-to-face classes.
During a virtual faculty town hall meeting in mid-August, Schlissel defended his reasoning for limited testing by comparing false negative results during the COVID-19 pandemic to false negative results during the HIV epidemic in the 1980s.
“Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security. That happened in the HIV epidemic when people got a negative test, and they presented it to their sex partners and spread the disease nonetheless,” he said.
Leaders from U of M’s Queer Advocacy Coalition (QAC) said Schlissel’s comment was a “bizarre and homophobic microagression” and that the president is “scapegoating a marginalized community for the AIDS epidemic as away of justifying a reopening plan that further endangers marginalized communities.”
According to U of M COVID-19 data, as of Sunday, five students and seven employees tested positive for COVID-19 since Friday. Last week, 34 people on U of M campuses tested positive — 16 non-students and 18 students.
Michigan has more than 102,000 cases and almost 6,500 deaths.
The university, along with all other public universities in Michigan, closed when the first wave of coronavirus cases hit the state in March.
The Ethics and Privacy Committee, created by Schlissel to work on plans for the re-opening of campus, said in a July 31 letter to the administration that “the current plans for Fall 2020 will not meet the reasonable standard for safety recommended by our report.”
The committee also warned that reopening the campus “would inflict considerable — in some cases grave — harm” to communities of color and other vulnerable populations, which have disproportionately suffered and died from COVID-19.
The university also expanded power for the campus police department and the Ann Arbor Police Department to police student gatherings.
Leaders from GEO said “to have armed police enforce distancing and mask regulations on campus will disproportionately affect Black and brown community members, who are already at heightened risk from COVID-19.”
The organization called on the university to disarm campus police and invest funds used for policing into anti-racist initiatives.