University Students Demand an Equitable Pandemic Response

by Brown U SEPR

published May 6, 2020

On April 21, Brown University announced that it will temporarily house healthcare workers who are keeping the Brown and Rhode Island community safe. This decision is a testament to the power that the University has to protect lives and livelihoods during a global crisis. To that end, students continue to remind the institution that the pandemic has only intensified the needs of its most vulnerable community members to which the University owes much of its success and growth. Brown should do more to minimize the damage of this new reality, especially in the areas of healthcare, employment, and housing, considering the fact that Brown provides all three of these things to thousands in our community. It is in this endeavor that students have come together under the banner of Brown University Students for an Equitable Pandemic Response (SEPR). With the endorsement of the Undergraduate Council of Students and a growing number of members in the Brown community, we plan on continuing this work well into the future as long as the needs of our community remain unmet.

And what could be more important during a pandemic than healthcare? We are grateful that Brown’s Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) specifically covers COVID-19 testing. UnitedHealthcare, the parent company of Brown’s Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) has eliminated cost-sharing for treatment—but only through May 31. President Paxson claimed on CNN that conditions on a fall campus would not be back to normal  in the face of an ongoing pandemic. So why allow for a return to cost-sharing so soon? The bills for treatment of COVID-19 easily run into the tens of thousands in addition to the physical toll it takes on the infected. This is why we call on Brown to fully cover the costs of COVID-19 testing, treatment, and eventual vaccination for all students on SHIP for the duration of the pandemic. Coronavirus will not respectfully yield to an arbitrary cutoff date.  Neither should Brown’s care for the health of all students.

Because the coming summer months will not allow for a normal cycle of health insurance renewals, we call on Brown to extend SHIP for graduating seniors beyond the August 15 end-of-cycle. The University has already offered this extension for graduating PhD students and Master's students. For seniors entering an uncertain job market, an extension on their healthcare plans is the safe and ethical course of action. Given these other University announcements, it has obviously been deemed within reason. The University has tentatively set October 2020 as the earliest possible time for seniors’ much-deserved commencement. It would be a disgrace to have new alumni celebrate “this important milestone” while also faced with the tremendous burden associated with lacking healthcare coverage.

Recognizing that the United States ridiculously links healthcare to employment—with tens of millions now losing this lifeline as employers institute mass layoffs—we also identify employment as a fundamental issue that Brown must address. The subcontracting and temporary hiring that Brown practices provides workers with meager wages, less bargaining power, and scant employment protections—vulnerabilities heightened by the pandemic. Because the University has protected the employment of its full-time staff through June 30, SEPR is calling on our administration to do the same for all workers still employed at Brown, including temporary workers and subcontractors.

But a mere continuation of employment is not enough. Facilities, dining services, and other front-line workers at Brown continue to put their health and safety at risk by coming to work, so it is incumbent on Brown to provide hazard pay of time and a half to these employees. Full-time, temporary, and subcontracted workers must receive hazard pay going forward, and retroactively for all hours worked since March 12, the day of transition to remote learning. We hope that in the long term, the current crisis forces Brown to improve its labor practices at large; in the short term, protecting the livelihoods in our community will literally keep families alive, and a refusal to do so will result in public outrage from a community tired of austerity and huge administrative salaries.

Crucially, SEPR demands that the University pay all student workers for their scheduled hours through the end of the term. This includes those who have already exceeded their on-campus work expectation in wages earned. Many students rely on income from university employment for food, housing and other essentials. The University did give $150 for travel expenses to all students on financial aid, but this provision was for one special circumstance. Whereas an emergency flight from Rhode Island may be a one-time thing, housing, food, and supplies are recurring necessities. We fear that, now faced with more than a month of lost wages, student workers are struggling to make ends meet. Considering the value student workers bring, it only makes sense for Brown to show its commitment to students’ safety and health away from campus.

Beyond the clear needs pertaining to employment and healthcare, we also address the grim reality of learning off campus. Acknowledging that over 2,600 undergraduate students and 65 faculty have endorsed the call for Universal Pass, we join them in calling on Brown to adopt a Universal Pass grading system. Brown values undergraduate learning as a formative time for students’ personal growth. In keeping with this mission, we must recognize that COVID-19 has devastated each one of Brown’s 6,752 undergraduates uniquely. Though the semester may be officially coming to a close, it is not too late for an academic policy that brings as much uniformity as possible to a pandemic and economic collapse.

From an email students received regarding room and board fees, Brown’s refund policy multiplies half of a semester’s total fees “by the percent of parent contribution to the standard cost of attendance.” This decision to only factor in parental contribution renders financial aid dollars ineligible for refund. The last time SEPR checked, financial aid is meant to cover precisely what parents cannot contribute! Assessing the refund in this manner, then, seems to skew the benefits away from families who need them more than ever.

University administrators might respond to these claims by pointing to the Emergency Funds, Curricular & Co-curricular Gap (E-Gap), which allows students to apply for financial support in times of unexpected need. This approach, however, burdens students to request money for each issue that arises. It fails to capture how financial struggle does not lend itself to significant free time. Similar to grading, then, SEPR advocates for a universal solution: an across-the-board refund of 50% of the semester’s room and board costs to all students, regardless of parental contribution.

Finally, we must remember that Brown is not in a bubble. According to the University’s website, “the story of Brown is also the story of Providence and Rhode Island.” If this is the ethos, we caution Brown to tamp down its pride when it comes to taxes.  Brown’s exemption from Providence property taxes translates to over $30 million less for the city, which is especially biting when budgets for the whole state are running thin. By pledging $10 million to mutual aid efforts in Rhode Island, Brown will justify its belonging in Rhode Island’s story. To this end, we’ve put together a list of local groups that Brown could significantly help. This is simply a starting point to highlight the many facets of our community in desperate need of assistance, and it is incumbent upon Brown to use the power it wields to do good in the worst of times.

Unlike President Paxon, Brown U SEPR is by no means optimistic about a return to normalcy on campus in the fall. Instead, we are focusing on fundamental human needs that do not depend on a calendar: health, employment, and financial well-being. We may lack a blueprint for how to successfully overcome a pandemic, but we will not stay quiet at home.


In solidarity,

Brown U SEPR


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