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COVID-19 leader Johns Hopkins fails to protect students, staff | COMMENTARY

Although public health experts and the media often cite Johns Hopkins University as a leader of the international response to the novel coronavirus, it has failed to protect the health and well-being of its own students and workforce.

TIME Magazine recently named JHU’s COVID-19 Dashboard “2020′s Go-To Data Source,” and millions of people rely on its data to make sense of the pandemic. But even as the dashboard showed increasing virus rates, Hopkins began a phased reopening in August with occupancy limits, a self-reported “have you coughed or sneezed in the last 24 hours” safety check, and an indoor mask requirement.

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Since then, over 600 students and employees on campus have contracted COVID-19, with minimal communication about exposure risks.

Lab-based graduate students have reported numerous problems since returning to campus, including workspaces too small for social distancing, noncompliance with mask mandates and uneven access to personal protective equipment. Recent surveys of the student body have indicated that some graduate students feel pressured to return to their labs despite these concerns, forcing them to choose between unsafe conditions or failing to meet the expectations of their advisers and departments.

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Reporting safety violations, furthermore, risks straining the relationships between concerned students and their co-workers. And supposedly anonymous reports seldom remain anonymous: Workers can identify whistleblowers within small lab groups, creating distrust among colleagues. Although graduate students have called for clearer and more equitable COVID-19 guidelines, the administration has so far limited access to asymptomatic COVID-19 testing, steadily increased building densities and held students to higher safety standards than faculty and staff.

Graduate workers who teach and conduct research outside the laboratory also face COVID-related difficulties. Students across the university have lost access to resources on and off campus essential to their work, including library services, archival material, computational equipment and instructional spaces. Two students have already approached Teachers and Researchers United, JHU’s graduate student union, about losing their funding and health insurance due to research delays directly attributable to the ongoing pandemic.

This number will only increase as JHU moves into the spring semester. The university intends to resume in-person classes this spring in a plan that troublingly disregards recent recommendations from the university’s own epidemiologists to close high-risk spaces.

Students generally look to the future with anxiety: Do I expose myself and those around me to COVID-19 or risk losing years of progress?

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When university stakeholders have called upon JHU to provide financial relief for COVID-19 through extended health insurance, stipends and tuition remission, the administration has claimed that it cannot afford to help.

President Ron Daniels and the Provost’s Office have instead responded to the COVID-19 crisis with austerity measures, including hiring freezes, furloughs, suspending faculty retirement contributions and refusing to reimburse graduate students for work-from-home expenses. Meanwhile, JHU has amassed $970 million of emergency reserves and netted a $75 million surplus this fiscal year.

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The cost of extending the stipends, health insurance and tuition remission for all Ph.D. students at JHU for one year would amount to at most $41 million. The money is there: The will to support students and workers is not.

These inconsistencies suggest an administration with misplaced priorities. JHU often seems more concerned with bolstering its prestige and maintaining its $6.5 billion endowment than supporting its teachers and researchers.

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We know that our teaching and research matters. The drive to know and improve the world was what originally drew many of us to graduate school. JHU leadership may care more about short-term finances than the wellness of its faculty, staff and graduate students, but it would do well to remember that the university cannot function without thousands of committed workers.

We urge JHU, for our sake and that of our families, not to view our lives as numbers on a spreadsheet. Rather, we ask the university administration to do the right thing and provide the means to educate, research, and innovate through the pandemic and beyond.

Caleb Andrews (calebandrews101@gmail.com), Alex Parry (aparry2@jhmi.edu) and Kristin Brig-Ortiz (kbrig1@jhmi.edu) are Ph.D. candidates at Johns Hopkins University.

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