On March 10, Johns Hopkins University shifted the majority of its coursework online until April 12. A week later, Hopkins announced it would be online for the rest of the term, and it closed general access to campus facilities.
Most of us graduate students began to panic – few of us had taught online before and had little idea how to do so. Regardless, teaching assistants and instructors rapidly pivoted to online courses, while research assistants tried to finish data collection and wrap up critical experiments.
Hopkins was forced to recognize us as “essential employees,” acknowledging that we are critical to the maintenance of the university. Harvard, University of Texas and other research institutions have made the same designation to allow graduate students to continue working despite Covid-19 restrictions.
Because we are not classified as employees, we are also not eligible for unemployment benefits should our funding disappear.
Yet as recently as February 2020, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that, as students, we are not entitled to right as “workers” to form a union or engage in collective bargaining.
So what are we: Employees or students?
Because we are not classified as employees, we are also not eligible for unemployment benefits should our funding disappear. Such funding depends on research progress, but most of us are now experiencing serious disruptions to our work as a result of building and travel restrictions.
We cannot access library or archival resources, have to cancel fieldwork, and, if at all possible, must bring laboratory equipment home to proceed with the barest versions of an experiment. This research ultimately determines what constitutes “satisfactory progress” in our departments, which in turn determines our funding for next year.
Health insurance is what we lack if we are let go due to “inadequate progress” or face graduation amid the pandemic and a recession.
Despite these roadblocks to “satisfactory progress,” Hopkins, like many other universities, has failed to construct a clear support system for graduate students, particularly regarding access to health care.
Although much graduate work is not as high-risk as other lines of work, health insurance is still a key resource for us. And health insurance is what we lack if we are let go due to “inadequate progress” or face graduation amid both a pandemic and economic recession.
Health and Mental Health
On top of this, university-run clinics, already difficult to navigate, are now running with limited staffing. As we have seen around the world, decent health insurance is a crucial component in keeping Covid-19 at bay. If a person cannot get the help they need, they are more likely to infect those around them and, in the worst cases, die.
At Hopkins, the insurance provision differs depending on the school. At the School of Medicine, coverage lasts 3-4 weeks after defending your dissertation, while in the Arts and Sciences and Engineering, it theoretically lasts until the following August.
Health insurance extends into mental health, too. In ordinary times, graduate workers experience depression and other mental health problems.
According to a study from University of Akron’s Department of Psychiatry, nearly half of surveyed PhD students “reported five or more symptoms of depression. . . occurring multiple times per week” (Rummell, “An Exploratory Study,” 2018).
Social distancing and self-quarantining are compounding existing mental health problems thanks to limited human contact, stress about family members and friends, and tight working quarters.
So far, graduate students have faced these stressful conditions on a shoestring budget with few safety protocols put in place by university administrators. Our progress and our future are on the line.
If Johns Hopkins wishes to define graduate students as “essential employees,” they must grant us basic rights and protections. And once this crisis is over, we can’t return to the role of second-class citizens.
Kristin Brig-Ortiz is a third-year doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Caleb Andrews is a Whiting School of Engineering doctoral student.