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‘Dying’ on the quad: NAU graduate workers protest COVID-19 conditions on campus
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‘Dying’ on the quad: NAU graduate workers protest COVID-19 conditions on campus

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Cardboard tombstones and nearly 40 motionless "bodies" filled Northern Arizona University’s North Quad Friday afternoon as graduate student workers took part in a die-in demonstration to demand changes to the university’s COVID-19 policies.

Their dominant message: “If you don’t pay us enough to live, you don’t pay us enough to die.”

Graduate students were joined by other masked members of the campus community who together chanted and held signs before lying still on the soggy grass for half an hour to represent the NAU student and employee lives that demonstrators said could be lost as a result of maintaining in-person instruction during COVID-19.

The group had four specific demands for university administrators, the same ones they said they’ve been asking for since July: adequate and accessible personal protective equipment (PPE), the choice of teaching modality, transparent data on campus COVID-19 cases and graduate employee representation in NAU’s decision-making process.

“Our status as students is the reason we’re not allowed to have input or representation in meaningful administrative levels, but our status as faculty is the reason we’re being told we don’t have the choice of course modality,” said Sarah-Grace Crocco, a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Communication. “For students like myself, I should be able to stay at home just like undergraduate students are being offered the option and the opportunity.”

Crocco, who helped organize the demonstration, said she has not been offered accommodations from the university to continue her job and studies in a way that would make her feel safe.

“The more that we talk to each other, the more we hear stories like this, stories like mine, of chronically ill and disabled graduate student workers who are being asked to make an impossible choice: my job and my health insurance or my life,” she said.

Crocco said the turnout for the demonstration was less than what she had hoped for and was likely due to what she described as “routinely threatening and intimidating” messages from NAU administration to faculty and staff.

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“Folks are scared. The people who are here today aren’t here because they’re not scared. They’re here because we don’t feel like we have any other choice moving forward but to do direct action to elicit a response,” she said.

Graduate teaching assistant Stacy Clark, another organizer of the demonstration, said she was fortunate enough she was able to receive an accommodation for her working conditions, but such behavior has not been the standard on campus.

“Some of us have supportive supervisors and we go through a certain lucky series of hoops and we are able to be granted an accommodation, whereas others of us are not able to achieve that and we are forced to come on campus, as my friend Sarah-Grace has been,” Clark said.

Clark led demonstrators in chants of “Give us safety, give us choice. Let grad workers have a voice,” and “Locate your morality. Give choice of course modality,” which the group shouted as they walked in a large, socially distant circle before the die-in began.

As they then passed the time silently in the warm sunlight, some participants had their hands folded neatly on their chests, while others had their arms and legs sprawled. Many covered their faces with cardboard displaying frowning caricatures with crossed-out eyes.

Ten minutes into the demonstration, they took a quick break to sit up and take a deep breath in honor of those who have died because of COVID-19. As of Friday, Coconino County has reported 135 total COVID-19 deaths. Statewide, the death count is more than 5,000, with most occurring in Maricopa County.

Also on Friday, NAU updated its dashboard to say the university is managing 273 cases of on- and off-campus students, up from 96 the week before. The dashboard does not have numbers for total stats such as cases or recoveries; according to Coconino County's dashboard, the NAU ZIP code (86011) has had 71 positive cases since the pandemic started.

NAU sophomore Madison Kier said she decided to participate in the demonstration in the hopes NAU administrators and the Arizona Board of Regents would put students’ lives over university profit by canceling in-person classes. She said the demonstration’s theme seemed appropriate, given the reality of current conditions.

“I think it definitely legitimizes the cause because it points out that we’re really dealing with student lives. So it seems dramatic, but it’s because those are the stakes that are at risk,” Kier said. “I think, yes, sit-ins can be impactful, but a die-in really shows the stark contrast of [NAU’s] priorities and our lives.”

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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