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GTAs voice concerns in recent survey about fall 2020

VT Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence (VT GrATE) surveyed students to learn about their concerns for fall 2020

The VT Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence (VTGrATE) is dedicated to supporting graduate students involved in teaching at Virginia Tech. Graduate students are integral to the teaching operations at Virginia Tech, and do not always have access to the same level of resources as faculty, even when serving as instructors of record. Given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were especially interested in identifying graduate student teaching and learning needs and sharing questions and concerns for the upcoming academic year. VT GrATE reached out to graduate teaching assistants and asked about their teaching needs, concerns, and interests for the fall 2020 semester. All survey responses are available here

The complete 16-page report can be found in pdf format here. The report comprises nine sections: Introduction; General Concerns for Fall 2020; Household Risk for COVID-19; Confidence in Supervisors: Conditions to Accommodate Risk of COVID-19; Survey Instrument; Survey Respondents; Course Format; and Resources Needed. 

We share the General Concerns for Fall 2020 (section 2 of the report) below. Quotes throughout the General Concerns, shown in italics, are from respondents using the comments section of the survey.

Of the 102 students that expressed their general concerns for Fall 2020, 30% of them expressed concerns for safety. The top concerns included:

  • Their own personal safety on campus, while undertaking their research or teaching responsibilities, such as “I could get sick from being exposed to others in my classes and labs” and “Getting sick, being stressed because of risk of becoming infected.
  • The safety of family and others. For example, one student expressed, “I don't want to get COVID. I live with my grandmother and I can't lose her” and “I'm worried about spreading Covid to my children and spouse or to folks on campus (parent of 2 young children).
  • Outbreak of COVID-19 within the community. Many were concerned that the influx of undergraduate students would be the cause: “Many people becoming infected because students come from areas with high chance of infection.”
  • Availability and provision of personal protective equipment (PPE). One student, for example, stated: “I hope there are sanitizing wipes everywhere so that room-users can wipe down their space after use and before use.

Related to safety, 14% of respondents explicitly stated concerns about the enforcement of safety guidelines. In particular, they were concerned that people would not follow guidelines: “That I will be forced to be in an overcrowded classroom with students who barely follow protocols and I will die … for $20k a year.

These students predominantly expressed distrust that undergraduate students will follow protocols on campus: “The responsibility of undergraduates to social distance” and “I do not trust students to properly social distance or maintain hygiene in the dorms and with their social lives.

About 9% of respondents shared concerns about the University administration undervaluing graduate student needs and concerns. Instead, graduate students would be overworked and placed in unsafe conditions: “That the administration isn't thinking about us,” “left behind/forgotten in University-wide decisions for a safe campus,” and “I know some people believe that we are disposable, but I hope they don't think we're tha ditsposable.

Additional and unsafe labor: “I am afraid [the administration] will, like always, use the grad students and adjuncts to fill in the gaps where the full-time tenured faculty don't want to work,” and “pressuring departments to offload unsafe in-person assignments to GTAs in order to accommodate the "30%" promise by Sands and to avoid irritating tenured faculty.”

Respondents (7%) mentioned uncertainty about the plans for the upcoming semester: “I just want to know the plan so I can be prepared. That's all I ask.” Uncertainties revolved around:

  • Format for classes
  • New safety rules and regulations
  • Changing requirements for assistantships and graduate work
  • Who can and should work remotely
  • University plans for a potential breakout

A few students felt that they would be left to “figure it out” and that “we are not going to be well prepared for teaching our classes in the fall.”

About 14% of respondents mentioned their financial situation. These students were worried about:

  • Losing employment
  • Incomes being reduced, while doing more work
  • Securing funding for research or tuition
  • Availability of jobs
  • COVID-19 related financial burdens, such as healthcare expenses, PPE costs, increases in tuition

A few of these students expressed having to leave school: “I don’t want to take a leave, but it is likely my only option. The worry then is finding the money to come back.

Approximately 13% of the respondents stated concerns about their degree progress. Many were worried their degree attainment would be delayed. Reasons included:

  • Impact of COVID-19 on research, such as “Outbreaks on campus, having to pause research again
  • Lack of productivity
  • Lack of access to labs
  • Skipping semesters, if offline, to mitigate health risks
  • Taking on extra work, if undergraduate students are unavailable to assist or more teaching burdens
  • Uncertainty if work can be done internationally

Respondents (9%) were also concerned about the quality of their education: “The quality of my learning” and “the quality of my own graduate education.” The concerns included how online learning impacts their ability to learn, mid-semester changes, and the requirements needed for online learning, such as home network bandwidth.

In addition to the themes previously outlined, a few respondents expressed the following concerns:

  • Childcare: childcare accessibility and affordability, and balancing childcare responsibilities with research, service, conferences, and teaching.
  • Relationship and community building: “build[ing] meaningful relationships with other students as well as relationships with my mentors,” the lack of options to interact with peers.
  • The increased teaching need and difficulties balancing tasks: Students are worried that the teaching role might overshadow their research and other student roles, such as “balancing teaching, an ambitious research agenda, departmental service and multiple conference presentations would be daunting for anyone.”
  • The impacts of COVID-19 cases on their teaching, such as meaningfully engage with students and teaching content, and keep students motivated.
  • The impacts of COVID-19 protocols on mental health, such as feeling isolated, having low self-esteem, added stress, and anxiety. For example, “The isolation of taking remote classes wasn't what I signed up for and motivation is lacking.”
  • Workplace locations: loss of graduate offices and associated privacy, the availability of safe and socially distanced spaces.
  • Teaching: uncertainty surrounding assessment of students, particularly for attendance.
  • Adequate and accessible medical services
  • Parking