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How Strikes and a COVID-19 Shutdown Affect UCSC Students

As online learning expands, combination of the virus and protests take toll on undergrads

When the UCSC campus was open, graduate student protesters held frequent protests at the base of campus, often blocking the entrance—disruptions that took a toll on other students. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

UCSC senior Davon Thomas was set to don a cap and gown in June and graduate with his fellow students.

Instead, everything is up in the air. The history major and Student Union Assembly president joined about 6,800 students in leaving campus as winter quarter finals approached in March. That was after university administrators cancelled all in-person classes to slow the spread of the latest strain of coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

The university’s 1,500 professors have now started delivering their spring quarter course content online.

“The coronavirus has been pretty frustrating,” Thomas says. 

The virus first began to spread across the globe at about the same time that UCSC teaching assistants went on strike, withholding grades and demanding the university pay them higher wages.

Organizers say that many of the teaching assistants spend at least 50%—and in some cases as much as 80%—of their income on rent, putting them well above the 30% considered to be rent-burdened. On Monday, March 30, strike organizers did announce a success—the university agreed to reinstate more than 80 workers who were fired for participating in the strike and withholding student grades.

ESCAPE ZOOM 

For UCSC’s spring quarter, which just began, Chancellor Cynthia Larive says the campus will remain open for online learning. The school is offering web conferencing services like counseling, advising and tutoring via Zoom. 

Students who left campus received a refund for their housing and dining fees. Those who wish to remain on campus may do so if they don’t have access to alternate housing, if they couldn’t afford to move, or if they meet other extenuating criteria. 

All the students who stayed behind are living at colleges Nine and Ten. The university closed all but a handful of dining areas, and students must take all meals to go.

Thomas will be taking his four spring quarter classes and three more over the summer online. Now that the university’s professors have started teaching via webinar, Thomas has concerns about the adjustment. “I think there are a lot of kinks to work out,” he says.

Students still have to pay full tuition costs if they want to take part in online courses. 

A question going forward will be what to do with UCSC’s commencement ceremony. UCLA is already considering holding a virtual graduation, an idea that Thomas says students wouldn’t stand for. “Students won’t accept virtual, and they won’t accept cancellation outright,” he says. 

STRIKE TWO

UCSC’s escalating near-shutdown comes at an awkward time for student activism, given that grad students had been striking for a $1,412 monthly wage increase. After some TAs withheld fall quarter grades, organizers held their strike at the base of campus for weeks over the winter, and they blocked traffic at the High Street entrance several times. On the heels of disruptions by striking grad students, the sudden lack of in-person classes felt like the last straw to many frustrated undergrads. On UCSC’s subreddit and on Facebook’s Official Group of UCSC Students, venting undergrads have frequently argued about whether strike organizers or university administrators are more deserving of blame for the disruptions.

On the other side of that divide, shelter-in-place orders and a mostly closed campus can really take some of the wind out of a protest.

Humanities doctoral candidate Stephen David Engel says that even though the strike has expanded to nearly every UC campus, the focus has shifted away from direct action to planning and organizing, due to coronavirus-related social distancing requirements. “You can’t do direct action and picket when you’re sheltering in place,” says Engel, who adds that the virus blindsided everyone. “It makes organizing harder—not impossible, but harder.”

Engel says many people don’t realize how much work teaching assistants like himself do. They are paid for 20 hours per week for a job that includes both teaching undergraduate students and doing research. “I work well over 40 hours a week,” Engel says. “The research is integral to the mission of the university.”

GRAD HABITS

Tatjana Beck, a senior studying ecology and evolutionary biology, says she didn’t mind when her winter quarter grades came in late because of the strike. She felt solidarity with the message of the grad students as she understood it.

“I’ve really loved my TAs, most of them, and I’ve learned a lot from them, too,” she says. “I really felt like there was a strong bond between the grad students and undergrads.”

When the protests gained momentum, Beck didn’t mind taking a longer bike route to school so she could avoid crossing the picket line. “You do you, get your money,” she remembers thinking.

Her views started shifting during the second week of the strike, when she was late for class and decided to cross the picket line as a shortcut. “You shouldn’t cross, we’re all protesting,” one man told her. She tried to explain that she supported what they were doing, but also that she was paying her tuition, and she had to get to class.

“They called me a scab, and I thought that was rude,” she says.

During week three of the protest, Beck saw protesters yelling at students and at bus drivers, even banging on the side of a bus—all of which struck her as unnecessary and bothered her. 

“We’re still paying tuition, and we’re still going to school, and it sucks for everyone,” she explains of the situation.

Beck says it’s important to remember that the high cost of living affects everyone, not just grad students.

It’s a sentiment that math major Burleigh Charlton shares. Charlton initially supported the strike and joined an early campus protest. But Charlton and Beck each say that many undergrad students’ attitudes began to shift after some strikers walked into a computer science midterm, disrupted the class, started chanting and refused to leave for a long time.

Charlton also wonders if the $1,412-per-month raise, which would bring their monthly compensation to more than $3,800, is really warranted.

“I believe the TAs should have honored their contract and stuck it out ’til 2022 when their ratified contract expires,” Charlton writes in an email. “Instead, they chose to withhold grades ’til they were fired—and then tantrum, block campus, disrupt the Metro and loop buses (including on voting day).”

Engel admits that the energy during the peak of the strike sometimes ran high. The strikers, he says, often had different ideas about what crossing the picket line meant. But the positive aspects of the strike far outweigh the negative ones, he says. “I hope that wouldn’t be taken as the general attitude of the movement,” Engel says.

Over the past few months, Beck watched as more and more of her classes shifted online—first because of the protests, and then because of the coronavirus.

Now, Beck has lost her spring quarter job managing a field conservation class, because the class was cancelled. It was one of her favorite classes, one that first inspired her to study biology when she took it as a freshman. Also cancelled was her herpetology internship studying northern horned lizards at Fort Ord. 

For the new quarter, Beck is a part-time student, only taking one class. Now that her internship and her job have both fallen through, she’s worried that she’ll find herself frittering her time away in unproductive ways.

“It’ll be hard for me. I don’t do well online,” Beck says. “I like talking to my professors.”

Additional reporting by Jacob Pierce

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