By Joe Wilson — 

On Jan. 20, a group of protesters gathered outside Grawemeyer Hall to denounce U of L’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and demand changes in the school’s policy.

The demonstration, called “Speak Out for Health and Safety at the University of Louisville,” was planned by the United Campus Workers of Kentucky, a group of campus workers from across the state. Among their demands is that instructors and employees be provided the flexibility to move their courses and work online and to offer hazard pay to frontline staff.

The organization’s criticism of the administration comes after U of L Interim President Lori Gonzalez announced the university’s course delivery policy, which stipulates that in-person courses cannot be conducted virtually. The only exception includes faculty who need to isolate due to COVID-19 infection or exposure. The university defends the policy, citing the 91% vaccination rate among students, staff and faculty.

However, U of L’s response has come under scrutiny amid the latest surge of COVID-19 cases from the highly-transmissible Omicron variant. With COVID-19 infections at record highs, the UCW has demanded that the university provide more flexibility to students and faculty who may want to attend classes virtually due to health concerns.

The protest came following repeated efforts by the UCW to persuade the university to change its policy. Last week, the group circulated a petition titled ‘Keep all Cardinals Safe!’ that has garnered over 1,700 signatures.

As students, faculty and staff joined the UCW on the steps of Grawemeyer Hall, several speakers questioned whether it was equitable to compel students and faculty to attend in-person classes amid the many hardships of the pandemic.

The protest gathered attention from Democrat Representative Attica Scott, who represents House District 41 in the Kentucky General Assembly. Scott provided a written statement which was read aloud by her daughter, U of L student Ashanti Scott:

“I am the mom of a University of Louisville student. My daughter deserves better than to try to pursue her education in fear. Her campus should be a place that prioritizes the health and safety of everyone. I stand with the United Campus Workers as they call on President Gonzalez to take COVID-19 and the Omicron variant seriously.”

Later in the afternoon, protestors went inside Grawemeyer Hall to express their demands to Gonzalez during a meeting with the Board of Trustees. When the protesters entered the meeting room, many noticed that some members of the board were attending the meeting virtually. “They get to be online, and we can’t,” one protester noted.

Nathan Schimpf, a graduate assistant speaking on behalf of the protesters, expressed the group’s grievances to the board of trustees. “We submitted our petition to President Gonzalez last Wednesday, January 12. Since then there has been no acknowledgement of the concerns and demands of the 1,700 university community members who have signed it, no acknowledgement of the university working toward these points and no acknowledgement that students and workers deserve their basic need of safety met at this time,” he said.

In response, Gonzalez said that while the university does not take this issue lightly, the protesters’ demands were “inconsistent” with the data she’s seen regarding COVID-19.

The meeting with the board of trustees proceeded, and the protesters were dismissed from Grawemeyer Hall about five minutes into the meeting.

Photo by Anthony Riley // The Louisville Cardinal