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Graduate Workers: ‘Reopening Endangers Students, Highlights Racial Inequalities’

Above photo:Graduate students lead a march for equal rights on campus in the spring of 2019. Colin Boyle.

It is less than a month before Fall Quarter begins, and despite daily warnings against doing so, Northwestern insists on proceeding with the harmful and dangerous plan of reopening campus.

The current fall reopening plan expects students to return to campus while holding most courses remotely. Despite Northwestern’s assurances that they are following best practices, the current return to campus plan will inevitably result in COVID-19 clusters among students, faculty and staff that will lead many to get sick and will only deepen the virus’s spread across the Evanston and Chicago region. Since June 12, 33 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported by Northwestern students, faculty and staff who, according to the University, “could have presented a risk of exposure to other members of the University community.” We know the rates of infection, and the risk to the broader community, will only increase with reopening. 

Our concerns are far from alarmist — by now, several other campuses with similar reopening plans have chaotically reversed course and pivoted to online only after the predictable spread of infections in their communities. UNC-Chapel Hill, Notre Dame University and Michigan State University have all been forced to shut down after COVID-19 clusters spread just days after they attempted reopening. The reversal of reopening plans compounded harm against students by forcing them to suddenly relocate and figure out alternative housing arrangements, a process that was riddled with inconsistencies, confusion and inequality. To avoid just such crises, other universities, such as Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and other peer institutions to Northwestern have preemptively announced they will not bring students back to campus, citing the safety of their university communities.

These infections were entirely avoidable. It is willfully ignorant and fatally dangerous to assume that things will be any different at Northwestern. 

Ignoring these facts and insisting on reopening under the wishful thinking that Northwestern will be one of the “lucky” ones is morally egregious. It also flies in the face of medical advice and scientific facts. With reopening, an institution that continually brands its researchers as being on the “front lines of the COVID-19 crisis” will only prolong the very pandemic they purport their researchers wish to curb. 

As graduate workers who have already been brought back to campus to work in labs, we have especially good reason to doubt the efficacy of Northwestern’s safety protocols. STEM graduate workers were pressured to return to their laboratories without a public case tracking system — the University’s case tracking website was disabled days before the phased reopening had students go back to labs and was put back up only a few weeks ago — and with numerous other safety concerns that continue to go unaddressed by the administration. We already know that Northwestern cannot keep us safe. 

Over the past couple of months, as administration has haphazardly shared incomplete information about what fall reopening would actually look like, we’ve seen the cultivation of a narrative that blames spikes in coronavirus cases on students’ behaviors, relying on harmful neoliberal tropes of individual responsibility to avoid their institutional and moral duty to protect all members of our community. As two professors, including an epidemiologist, noted last month, “Universities have no business reopening if they can’t provide a healthy environment for students, faculty and staff.” Northwestern must do more than just signal blame to its community members, it must ensure the safety of all of us by taking responsibility and making wise decisions: avoiding the spread of disease and many potential deaths by going completely virtual.

We note too that the disruption of reopening followed by a rise in cases and reversal to fully remote instruction will likely exacerbate already existing racial inequalities endemic to Northwestern’s operation — inequalities that the institution claims it is “committed” to mending. An abrupt closure after reopening will leave students scrambling. As we saw last spring, the burden of the chaos will fall on historically underrepresented and international students. It’s a pattern we’re once again seeing play out throughout the country — for example, at UNC-Chapel Hill, Black students have been disproportionately affected by the University’s preventable about face to go remote and subsequent neglect of Black students’ needs during the process, leading students to create a mutual aid fund

Anti-Blackness and carceral logics thread through the University’s reopening plan in other ways, too. Northwestern has already indicated their desire to deputize law enforcement to enforce social distancing protocols. Encouraging people to call EPD or NUPD to criminalize students deemed non-compliant, especially after a coalition of Black undergraduates and graduate students have called for the abolition of police on campus, is not only offensive, but also poses a serious threat to the livelihoods of Black and marginalized students on campus. If NU actually wishes to eliminate anti-Blackness on campus — a claim they made in response to the mass uprisings against racist police brutality triggered by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade — it needs to sever ties with police, not increase police to further threaten the livelihood of students by exposing them to the coronavirus and the virus of racism that policing enforces.

Three weeks before the start of Fall Quarter, Northwestern stands at a historical crossroads. 

Northwestern University Graduate Workers urges the University to do the right thing. If you don’t act, we will. 

 Northwestern University Graduate Workers

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