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Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Carrie Cifers, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies, used to complete 60 hours of work on a regular weekday. But that shifted to 10 hours a week. Although she has received special access to the school’s office to complete work, she still has to take care of her 3-year-old child at home, an issue affecting dozens of parents due to child care centers closing down. Many students have been affected by the pandemic, and graduate students are no exception. They’ve noted that they have been unable to travel or conduct research to complete their programs on time. “We have a certain amount of time that we’re funded. When that clock ends, we no longer receive funding,” Cifers said. “We’re asking UVA to extend the time because of the many setbacks.” UVA’s Religious Studies Graduate Student Association originally wrote a petition named “6Asks” demanding  the school to address some of its graduate students’ concerns. That petition has inked partnerships with the Graduate English Student Association, the Anthropology Graduate Student Collective and the Latinx Graduate Student Alliance. The petition’s demands include extending time for doctoral students to complete milestone requirements by one year; developing ways to work with students on F-1 and J-1 visas; healthcare coverage for all doctoral students; and allowing student instructors, teachers assistants and resident assistants to have a voice in remote teaching and research if social distancing to diminish the spread of COVID-19 persists in the fall.

Petition Highlights:

  • Extend time to completion and milestone requirements by one year for all doctoral students, including advanced standing students and students on doctoral completion status.
  • Extend and expand funding opportunities for all doctoral students, including and especially late-stage doctoral students and newly graduated doctoral students on the job market.
  • Allow master’s degree students the option of taking an additional semester to complete their thesis enrolled under off-Grounds status.
  • Ensure that graduate students on F-1 and J-1 visas are able to maintain their visa status, and that they have access to similar financial assistance as has been made available to US citizens.
  • Provide access to affordable health care coverage for all doctoral students, including those no longer covered by departmental funding and newly graduated doctoral students on the job market.
  • Provide formal channels for Student Instructors, teaching assistants and research assistants to join the decision-making process about expectations for remote teaching and research if social distancing continues into the Fall Semester.
“As far as the 6Asks, that would help me with my work and my progress. My program has been set back completely,” Cifers said. “More time on the clock would be everything.” As of May 18, the petition had garnered 346 signatures, according to its update page, including signatures from religious studies graduate students, faculty and other affiliates, other graduate and undergraduate students. The petition’s progress report indicated that UVA officials have made some progress addressing the demands, but students are not satisfied. The petition stated UVA has not made progress on extending the time of completion of milestone requirements by one year for all doctoral students, allowing master’s degree students to take an extra semester to finish their thesis and  provide healthcare for all doctoral students. The petition noted some progress has been made on the other demands, but more work is needed. Essam Fahim, also a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies, is on a student visa from Pakistan. He lives here with his wife and son. His son’s child care provider shut down because it followed the same protocols as city schools, which had been ordered to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “The biggest problem is that he’s at home all the time now,” Fahim said. “We have a lot more child care duty. My wife and I are constantly juggling taking care of him and keeping him happy, so there’s less time now for work.” Fahim said he’s all right for now. But the pandemic has slowed down his program, so he’s likely going to need an extension on his visa next year. He stressed the major impact for him is his milestone because he was supposed to complete his general exams this month, saying he has not been able to complete work. He noted that graduate students like him are asking UVA to differ the milestone completion by one year — which includes completion of course work and general exams ― so that they don’t get in trouble for not meeting deadlines. “We have a total duration for the doctoral program,” he explained. “If you don’t complete it in seven years, then they kick you out. If you’re not done with your courses, they’ll put you on some sort of probation.” UVA spokesperson Brian Coy acknowledged that students at every level have been impacted by the pandemic. “From the beginning of the crisis, the university made it a priority to protect graduate students by extending continuity of pay for all graduate research assistants and graduate teaching assistants, whether or not they were able to conduct their duties from home,” Coy said. “This provision has now been extended to all graduate students on assistantships through Aug. 24.” UVA has put in place a committee consisting of school leaders and experts to work on a plan for the school to return to instruction in the fall, he stressed, and that committee is  working with graduate students to make sure they’re part of the decision-making. The school expects to announce how it will handle the fall term by mid-June, Coy said. “As that process moves forward, students who are experiencing immediate hardship as a result of this pandemic may be eligible for emergency financial assistance through the federal CARES Act,” he said.

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.