TA safety

Graduate teaching assistants across the university are voicing their concerns about in-person classes, saying in some cases that they have felt pressured to teach in person despite health concerns. 

“Of course, if my boss told me I had to teach or I’m not going to work, I would absolutely be gung-ho,” said Kaitlyn Samons, president of the Clemson Graduate Student Government (GSG). “I don’t know what you expect of someone whose boss is telling them ‘Do you want to eat and go to school or do you want to have to go find a job in the middle of a pandemic during a hiring freeze?’” 

In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clemson University has made sure to offer the option for fully online education to all undergraduate and graduate students, as well as to all professors. Some graduate teaching assistants and graduate teachers of record, however, feel they have not been given an equal opportunity to opt for all-online teaching responsibilities. 

“Since students are being given the option to be fully online, I think instructors should have the same choice,” said one graduate teacher of record, who chose to remain anonymous. As a teacher of record, she is completely in charge of the course and carries even more responsibility than graduate teaching assistants. 

In an interview with The Tiger on Sept. 10, John Lopes, Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School, emphasized that all instructors, including graduate teaching assistants, should work with their departments to find appropriate solutions if they feel uncomfortable teaching in person. 

“We want to make sure that [teaching assistants] have the exact same flexibility as all other instructors,” he said. “A big priority for me as a new dean is to put [graduate students’] physical and psychological safety right at the forefront.” 

Lopes reiterated the message sent out by Provost Bob Jones and the deans of each of Clemson’s seven colleges in an email to Clemson instructors on Sept. 4. The email encourages faculty, staff and graduate assistants to use “their best judgement to decide on the level and timing of in-person teaching for their courses.”

Samons explained that graduate teaching assistants may not have the backing of their departments or the professors they work with when requesting online responsibilities. Some fear losing references and risking the progression of their careers by going against their overseeing professors, who may have asked them to cover the in-person portion of hybrid classes. 

Similar concerns have been voiced by graduate student employees across the nation. Graduate student teachers at Texas A&M University held a rally on Sept. 14, saying they were not given the option to teach remotely. They asked for hazard pay and PPE, among other demands, which can be found in this letter to university administrators. 

The Coalition of Graduate Employees at Pennsylvania State University held a “die-in” back in July to protest returning to campus. Similar protests have taken place at the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa and Ohio State University

At Clemson, different departments have different procedures for how graduate teaching assistants should go about requesting online teaching responsibilities, but some worry that the lack of an overarching policy could lead to further issues. 

“They’ve definitely left a lot of departments out on islands where it’s almost like each department has to come up with their own rules,” said Erik Antonio, a graduate student and Director of Research Initiatives for GSG. “There is no one uniform policy. It has been frustrating [for graduate students] because there is a lack of communication and we don’t really know what’s going on.”

The university sent instructors some information about mask enforcement that they were asked to include in their syllabi. However, graduate students are still unsure of the specific steps they should take in the event of mask noncompliance from a student. “There is a lot of additional pressure on graduate students to enforce masking. We really need guidelines to help graduate students know what’s expected of them,” said Antonio.

Brad Green, a graduate teacher of record for an online engineering class of 160 students, expressed his doubts about in-person instruction and the ability of graduate teachers to enforce mask-wearing. 

“I would not feel comfortable teaching in person. This stems from my safety when interacting with students who may or may not comply with wearing a mask,” he said. “As the figure of authority, it would be completely up to me to police the class, enforce social distancing, and also enforce the mask policies handed down from the University.” 

Another graduate teacher of record, who will be teaching two hybrid classes this semester and also chose to remain anonymous, expressed his concerns that he could contract the virus in the classroom. “To be honest, I’m kind of nervous...I like teaching in-person for sure, but I just don’t feel comfortable.” 

As an international student, he feels especially powerless. “It’s a mess, my life, teaching and research, everything is a mess. I try not to fight this case much because I don’t want to risk anything. I just want to speak my voice.” 

Samons echoed his feeling of powerlessness. “Graduate students are in a very precarious and vulnerable situation,” she said. “We’re not given the same respect as a professor and we’re not given the same power as an undergraduate student because they bring in a third of all revenue.” 

Some graduate students have children or take care of older relatives and must also consider their well-being. Additionally, many graduate students rely on university-sponsored health insurance to cover the costs of their healthcare and the healthcare of their family members. Changes to the student health insurance plan resulting from the pandemic mean that students are now responsible for an even larger share of their healthcare costs, as deductibles for individuals and families under the university’s health insurance plan have doubled since 2019. 

When asked about graduate students’ priorities this fall, Samons responded by saying, “My students care about their health and well-being, their families and their jobs.” She continued, saying, “My students’ jobs and lives are at stake. One death is too many.”

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