The Teaching Assistants Association protested in-person classes Saturday in a march to the official residence of the University of Wisconsin chancellor.

Protesters from the TAA gathered at Engineering Mall yesterday evening to protest the UW Smart Restart plan for the fall semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The crowd of around 30 people started the protest by stating their concerns about spreading the virus to the broader Madison community.

TAA member Rob Timberlake said the current UW reopening plans are a public health issue. Timberlake noted this risk by reading obituaries of people who have died in Dane County due to COVID-19. 

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“We are scared because UW is enacting policies which will hurt us and hurt our communities,” Timberlake said. “What happens on the UW-Madison campus doesn’t stay on our campus. When we get sick, we will get others sick.”

Timberlake said University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which has lower density in the dorms than UW, is a prime example of what could happen if the Smart Restart plan goes ahead.

On Thursday alone, UNC-Chapel Hill registered more than one-third of all their positive cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the Washington Post. Two more COVID-19 clusters emerged at the university in the last week, and now 566 students in total have tested positive for the virus since February 2020.

Timberlake said UW administrators have not changed the university’s plan in light of the current COVID-19 situation in the community, unlike some of their peer institutions. According to Timberlake, Michigan State University shifted to online classes with the exception of some essential in-person classes, and the University of Minnesota is considering a two-week delay for undergraduates. 

“So I look at our [UW] leaders here, who are still following the same plan they came up with months ago,” Timberlake said. “We’re looking at administrators who are committed to the policy, still sending us the same copy-pasted emails to respond to our concerns. They haven’t answered our questions.”

TAA Co-Chairperson Anthony Flynn said his questions about the conditions under which the UW campus will close remain unanswered. Flynn announced that the protesters would march to the Olin House — the official residence of UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank — to demand their voices be heard. 

Flynn said this choice was because Blank did not engage with students or faculty about the restart plans, with the exception of virtual town halls — where the comment sections were closed. 

Protesters chanted, “Two-four-six-eight, eight percent infection rate!” and “One-two-three-four, a thousand deaths, how many more?” as they marched to the Chancellor’s residence. Once they reached her house, protesters gathered on her lawn and placed signs on her doorstep. 

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“Becky, Becky, come on out, we got shit to talk about!” protesters said at Blank’s residence. “Becky, Becky, what do you say, how many kids gonna die today?” 

Following no response from Blank or other residents of the household, protesters read a set of demands. Protesters demanded the university negotiate a moratorium on debt services through its creditors who continue to receive millions of dollars in debt service payment. Protesters also demanded UW to abolish or defund UWPD and redirect funding.

Flynn said UW is spending hundreds of millions of dollars paying down debt it accrued to build campus buildings instead of taking care of its students and workers.

“We are demanding that we reallocate funding from those making over $150,000 before anyone making less than that has their pay cut or is furloughed,” Flynn said. “We’re demanding the university work with us in lobbying the state and federal legislatures to increase funding for public education.”

Flynn said the TAA demands the university negotiate greater institutional support for students. The demands proposed UW accomplish this through drawing funding from the University of Wisconsin Foundation, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the Morgridge Institution Foundation Inc.

After protesters arrived at Blank’s residence, at least two UWPD vans were spotted at the scene. In an email statement to The Badger Herald, UWPD Director of Communications Marc Lovicott said UWPD presence is not uncommon during on-campus protests.

“Our primary objective is the safety of all who are exercising their first amendment rights,” Lovicott said. “That’s why you may have seen some of our officers today, while a small group of protesters gathered at Engineering Mall and Olin House. As usual, the event was safe and peaceful.”

After listing their demands, some protesters read their last will and testament — written in light of the university’s choice to hold in-person classes during the pandemic. 

In their will reading, TAA Co-Chairperson CV Vitolo-Haddad said administrators are putting people’s lives at risk. Vitolo-Haddad said they are not compromising with administrators when it comes to their community’s health, and that their willingness to compromise will die with the first on-campus COVID-19 death. 

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In another will reading, graduate student Aaron Lopez directed all of his assets to friends, family and a goddaughter. 

“I wish for my remains to be placed at the top of Bascom Hill on the statue of Abraham Lincoln’s lap, where Chancellor Rebecca Blank will set fire to them and leave my corpse for the crows to pick at until the maggots and the birds have left nothing but simply burnt ash and shit for everyone to look upon every time they look at that statue,” Lopez said. 

In a statement sent to The Badger Herald, Provost Karl Scholz addressed general concerns and supported the existing Smart Restart plan.

Scholz said UW continues to monitor Dane County public health and case data and the restart plan currently entails testing and prevention protocols.

Scholz said UW doesn’t want to sacrifice the value of in-person classes, and wants to make sure students have access to campus resources and technology necessary for virtual learning. Scholz also said many research activities at UW cannot be moved online.

“Our plan includes a robust testing regime, contact tracing, symptom monitoring, enhanced cleaning protocols, mandatory wearing of face coverings in university buildings and public spaces where physical distancing isn’t possible and physical distancing in all classrooms,” Scholz said. “These steps, along with our plans for a mixture of face-to-face and remote instruction, makes us optimistic about our ability to reopen some on-campus activities this fall.”

UPDATE: This post was updated at 10:13 on 8/23 to reflect information from Provost Karl Scholz.