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'Sickout' urges Iowa State University to move classes online

Iowa college students, faculty and staff were invited to take part in a "sickout day" hosted Tuesday by the Iowa Student Action organization in an effort to encourage university officials to move classes online.

Participants from Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and other institutions were encouraged to sign the Iowa Student Action pledge by 5 p.m. Tuesday in efforts to identify how many were involved. 

After calling in sick, participants were then encouraged to reach out to members of the Board of Regents and administrators to let them know why they chose to skip out on classes for the day. 

ISU spokesperson Angie Hunt said the university was aware of some calls and emails from people in support of the sickout, but that it was unclear how many students were participating. 

Iowa State University students, faculty, and staff were invited to take part in a Sickout Day hosted on Tuesday by the Iowa Student Action organization in an effort to encourage university officials to move classes online.

No matter the amount of planning and safety guidelines a university puts in place, "you can't stop students from congregating," said Alexa Rodriguez, an Iowa Student Action organizer and junior at ISU. "And the university administrators knew that but they chose to open anyway."

Rodriguez, who is Hispanic, says she contracted COVID-19 in May and is concerned about the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black and Hispanic Iowans.

According to a report published last month by the National Urban League, Black people and Latinos are four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and Black people are twice as likely as white people to die of the virus.

The CDC notes that longstanding "systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19."

Rodriguez said many of her family and community members have gotten sick, "and it's all because of the lack of leadership — starting with the federal response to this crisis, also at the state level with our governor, and then down to the Board of Regents, who had the chance to say we prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our students, faculty and staff, and the community that provides for our university.”

Josh Lehman, a Regents spokesperson, commended the work of Iowa universities on Tuesday. 

“All three institutions have worked extremely hard at establishing guidelines for fall 2020 campus operations, which includes a combination of in-person and virtual learning,” Lehman wrote in an emailed response to the Tribune. “We must all work together to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

The demonstration came the day after Iowa State University reported an additional 112 positive COVID-19 cases on campus over the past week.

As a result of on-campus target testing — which began Aug. 1 — the university reported a 15.5% positivity rate among those tests on Monday, which is a drop from the 19.7% reported last week

To date, 132 individuals are listed as being in "active isolation," or COVID-19 positive, according to the university. 

Iowa universities this week called off spring break, and President Wendy Wintersteen announced the spring semester will now begin two weeks later on Jan. 25, with the semester ending the first week of May. Casses are being offered in four delivery models: face-to-face, online, hybrid, and arranged.

After hundreds of students flouted social distancing guidelines during large parties the weekend before classes started, Iowa State doubled down on its safety requirements, announcing that those who don't follow social distancing and mask rules on and off campus would be subject to discipline. 

Rodriguez asked others to consider where the interests of university leaders lie.

"The longer that they choose to keep us on campus and the longer that we are interacting with one another without being able to just stay at home and learn, the longer that we're putting people's lives at risk," Rodriguez said. "It's about doing the right thing." 

USA Today reporting contributed to this article.