UO graduate employee union pushes for online classes amid COVID-19 spike

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Jan. 7, 2022 1 p.m.

The union says policy changes announced Thursday don’t go far enough.

After a spike of new COVID-19 cases in the University of Oregon campus community, administrators have implemented new policies including allowing instructors to teach classes remotely if large numbers of students are absent. The university’s graduate employee union says more needs to be done.

In a message Thursday, UO Provost Patrick Phillips announced that instructors may move courses online, at the discretion of their department leaders, if they are experiencing 20% or more COVID-19-related student absences.


Phillips stressed that in-person instruction should remain the first choice for instructors.

“We continue to emphasize in-person instruction as the best option whenever possible and instructors may continue to teach in person even with 20 percent or more of their class absent,” Phillips wrote in the announcement.

These new policies come after the university reported 154 confirmed or presumed cases of COVID-19 in campus community members last week, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2.

Case numbers appear to be going up rapidly. This past Monday, the first day of the winter term, UO reported 71 new cases. On Tuesday, it reported 222 cases. That compares to about 30 cases per week leading up to the holiday break.

Graduate student employees at the university said in a letter Wednesday that rising case numbers are more than enough reason to take stronger action. The union is calling on university leaders to move classes online for the next two weeks to slow the spread of the virus and allow students and employees to get their COVID-19 booster shots.

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, UO’s graduate employee union, posted to social media Wednesday the letter that its president wrote to university administration.

Johnson Hall on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Johnson Hall on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

GTFF President Mel Keller told OPB Thursday the union was encouraged by the provost’s announcement of new policies, but that more needs to be done to ensure the safety of students and employees.

“It’s heartening that the university is taking steps, however we are and continue to be disappointed in their dedication to in-person learning at the expense of the health and safety of the campus community,” Keller said.

Keller said the options for faculty to move instruction online are extremely limited — including that 20% or more absences rule.

“We also feel even with this temporary option to pivot to online learning that this is not enough for the university to counter the wide spread of the omicron variant,” she said. “In particular because this is at the behest of individual faculty, up to individual department heads, up to the individual writ large, there’s no coordinated strategy across the university.”

Along with the request to move classes online, the GTFF had also asked administrators to provide N95 or KN95 masks to students and employees.

In the letter to UO administration, Keller wrote that many UO campus community members are still wearing cloth or surgical masks, which have been found to offer less protection against COVID-19.

UO Provost Phillips announced Thursday that disposable surgical masks will continue to be available in university classrooms. He also said the university anticipates that a limited number of KN95 masks may be available for people who have forgotten their masks at home.

“With a university as large and a research budget as expansive as the University of Oregon’s, the fact that they cannot provide KN95s or N95 masks for anybody teaching and working on campus is a massive oversight considering how much more protective those masks are,” Keller told OPB.

Keller said the union feels the way the university is handling the pandemic, and the omicron surge specifically, is not sufficient.

“This isn’t just a problem that just ends when you leave the campus. This is a problem that affects the entire Eugene community, and the university does not seem to recognize that,” Keller said.


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