What happens if a graduate student teaching assistant or instructor of record gets sick and is unable to perform their assigned responsibilities?

Date: August 2021


Dear Deans, 

The Provost has recently announced Cornell’s approach towards providing individualized accommodations to graduate students whose disabilities or weak immune systems preclude them from safely participating as the university resumes in-person operations. This move is not without valid criticism, but one related question remains unanswered: What happens if a graduate student teaching assistant or instructor of record gets sick and is unable to perform their assigned responsibilities? 

That is, who is responsible for teaching the course if we are unable to attend our class? Will that person be appropriately compensated? Can it switch online? Will we continue to receive our stipend? How much sick-time is allowed before a graduate student’s status changes? At that time, what happens to our health insurance? How might this, in particular, impact international students? 

I think I can speak for myself and my colleagues in saying that while COVID-19 presents many uncertainties, answers to basic questions like this would help significantly at putting us at ease as another tremendously stressful semester commences. Simply passing each individual case to Student Disability Services is an inappropriate use of an already over-burdened resource. 

The Provost recently suggested that “Cornell cares deeply about our graduate students who have demonstrated tremendous resiliency throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We remain steadfastly committed to offering a wide range of individualized accommodations as we resume in-person operations this fall;” however, the answer to these above questions should not an “individualized” response, rather a Graduate School-wide policy that students should have an opportunity to help design and to put in writing, so we know what to expect and can see that it is fairly implemented. I’d like to know what that policy is before I enter my classroom in a couple of days.


Concerned TA


Dear Worried TA,

The concern about how to navigate a sudden illness is always valid, but even more understandable while we are enduring a global pandemic. I know that students, faculty, and staff have many anxieties. The university has put in place an array of supports for members of the community who become ill with COVID or experience other health problems.

First, it’s important for graduate students to know that while you may be appointed as a TA, RA, or GRA, our goal for you is always to be a student making progress towards your own degree first and foremost. If you need time to recover from an illness, access to medical care, or longer-term medical accommodations, there are resources to help:

  • Paid sick leave policy for graduate assistants – Assistants and students with hourly jobs accrue paid sick time. Additional time away from duties is routinely approved with no reduction in stipend.
  • Disability accommodation – Students and assistants who have encountered a health or disability barrier can seek an individual accommodation. These can offer short-term flexibility or longer term structural supports for a disability or chronic condition.
  • Health Leaves – Available to students with severe health problems (typically those lasting more than two to three weeks) that stop academic progress and/or prevent a student from performing their assistantship duties.

All graduate assistants, including those who are TAs, have considerable flexibility under longstanding Cornell policy and receive paid sick time under NYS law. If you are unable to teach a class due to illness you should notify your TA supervisor, who will coordinate coverage or, if no other coverage is available, cancel the class. TAs who test positive for COVID and are required to isolate by the Tompkins County Health Department can either coordinate sick time away from TA duties or, if they feel well enough to perform some duties remotely, can seek a short-term accommodation to TA remotely by working with SDS.

All funded graduate students are on the SHP plan so have insurance coverage for the fall term (plan dates are Aug. 1, 2021 – Jan. 31, 2022).  Even if a student takes a personal or health leave of absence they retain their insurance coverage unless they actively cancel the plan. The support described above applies equally to international students, U.S. citizens, and permanent residents. 

Lastly, please know that the Graduate School is always available to help advocate for and assist students who have questions or need help. You can reach out to Dean Janna Lamey (janna.lamey@cornell.edu) or me and we’ll work with you, your field, committee, or supervisors to reach the best possible outcomes. You aren’t alone in navigating the system.



Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration