Guest Column

SUNY-ESF administration has failed to protect its graduate student employees

Sarah Lee | Senior Staff Photographer

SUNY-ESF is ignoring graduate student employees’ suggestions on how to improve the contact tracing plan.

A year after reopening for in-person instruction, SUNY-ESF is still failing to properly contact trace a large portion of the campus community: graduate employees.

ESF began the fall 2021 semester without a contact-tracing team, relying entirely on Syracuse University’s system. With this system, students receive notice of potential COVID-19 exposures in the classroom via emails. While this system is effective at notifying faculty and enrolled students in a given course, it fails to notify many graduate student teaching assistants, whom faculty members have been tasked with notifying instead.

Teresa Rose Osborne, a Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) elected representative, raised this concern with David Newman, who is ESF’s interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, on Sept. 14. It was not even a month into the semester, and Osborne was already hearing horror stories from TAs who didn’t know they had shared classrooms with students who had tested positive for COVID-19 until faculty mentioned it days or weeks later.

In her communications with ESF administrators, Osborne described the omission of TAs from class rosters and subsequent contact tracing notifications as “a grievous oversight that endangers the health of TAs and those with whom they interact, in other words, our entire campus community.”

Osborne stated that she hoped the ESF administrators would correct this oversight and add TAs to course rosters immediately, only to be dismissed by Newman, who responded, “I am counting on the (faculty) instructor to inform their TA’s if a message is sent out.”


The administration’s dependence on faculty members to notify their teaching assistants is not only dangerous but negligent, and possibly a breach of union contract. Most ESF faculty are not trained in contact tracing, and over-reliance on faculty as contact tracers could far too easily result in failure to notify TAs of their exposure.

For example, overworked faculty members may not immediately see an email notifying them of the exposure or simply forget to pass along the message. Further, the collective bargaining agreement with GSEU requires SUNY campuses to commit to “maintaining safe working conditions, and to initiating and maintaining operating practices that will safeguard employees, in an effort to eliminate the potential of on-the-job-injury/illness.”

ESF’s current operating practices for contact tracing create an unsafe working environment for TAs and unnecessary potential for COVID-19 to be spread on ESF’s campus.

On Sept. 20, Shelby Zangari, another GSEU elected representative, initiated contact with the newly-appointed ESF COVID-19 coordinator, Elias Chan, who is a 2021 graduate from ESF’s environmental health program. Zangari asked Chan if he would meet with GSEU to discuss graduate students’ concerns about contact tracing, including the lack of exposure notifications. Chan ignored requests for a meeting and has since stopped responding to emails from GSEU representatives and graduate students about their concerns with the current contact tracing procedures at ESF.

Osborne also raised the issue of cross-listed graduate and undergraduate courses at ESF, where undergraduate and graduate students attend the same class but are enrolled under different course numbers. According to Chan, ESF has since resolved contact-tracing issues with cross-listed courses, but administration still refuses to consistently include TAs in classroom contact tracing.

The administration’s excuse: it’s just too hard to know what jobs their employees are doing. According to Chan, “David Newman and (Vice Provost and Dean for Student Affairs) Anne Lombard have discussed possible ways of getting the list of TAs in each class but have determined that this is not an easy ask.” But TA course assignments are made at the departmental level, so academic departments must know which TAs teach which classes. With only 10 academic departments, putting together lists of TA assignments is a simple task. Some efforts have been made to remedy this issue, but so far nothing has changed.


On Oct. 15, Chan released a survey to graduate TAs in an effort to create a comprehensive list of where these graduate workers were assigned. As of Tuesday, however, it is unclear whether these data are being used in any way.

At this point, emails from Newman about on-the-job COVID-19 exposures are reaching some graduate TAs, but not all. Graduate TA and GSEU member Molly Heit expressed her frustrations with the current system in an email to Newman stating that, “I have already been exposed a few times and have had to rely on the sick students themselves to let me know.” This lack of consistency in notifications has led to a sense of unease among TAs and adds further anxiety to the already stressful experience of the pandemic.

The appointment of an ESF COVID-19 coordinator, inclusion of cross-listed courses in contact tracing and notification of some TAs of in-class exposures are steps in the right direction. To protect the health of the campus community, administrators at ESF must use TA course assignment information in contact tracing.

While there is an overall sense that, in the words of Heit, “the conditions on campus have certainly … improved within the last couple of months” and students are “grateful to … admin for the work that has gone into keeping COVID rates as low as possible on campus,” the solutions to TA contact tracing are simple and could have been implemented before the start of the semester.

These challenges should have been anticipated after a year of on-campus instruction during the pandemic. Yet two months after the start of classes, ESF administrators continue to sit on their hands while each day graduate employees risk their health teaching ESF students. By neglecting to address contact tracing concerns that have been repeatedly raised by graduate students and union representatives, ESF administrators are putting the entire campus community at risk.

The Graduate Student Employees Union is a graduate worker organization that advocates for graduate workers’ needs on campus. GSEU At Large chapter, which represents grad workers at ESF and other SUNY Colleges, can be reached at [email protected].

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