University leaders hosted town halls on Nov. 4 and Nov. 9 to discuss plans for the spring semester. Vice Provost and Chief Risk and Compliance Officer Jon Links emphasized that everything that the University has shared regarding the spring is tentative, just as it was for the fall, before the University decided to move everything completely online.
“All the plans that we are talking about right now may or may not come to pass. We will only execute these plans and open for the spring semester if public health conditions warrant,” he said. “If public health conditions don’t warrant, then we won’t.”
In an interview with The News-Letter, junior Carol Lu, a First-Generation, Limited-Income (FLI) student living in Hawaii, stressed that it would be optimal for students everywhere to know the University’s definite, final plans by the end of December at the latest. She shared that she is dependent on her position as a Resident Advisor for housing and will only be able to return if she can keep her job.
“The issue with fall plans is that they said the same thing with hybrid even up until August, which is a really crazy late time to say we’re going fully online. I hope it won’t be a repeat of last semester, but there’s really no way to know right now,” she said. “Everyone’s hopeful and excited, but it could be likely that it’s going to be a huge disappointment again.”
Junior Yoko Yamashita, an international student from Japan, stated in an interview with The News-Letter that she is conflicted about the University’s decision.
“Personally, I am against the school opening in the spring just because COVID cases are higher than when they first shut down,” she said. “I’m just not sure that they’re making the best decision they can considering the circumstances, especially since they’re not giving the 10% tuition reduction this time.”
Links noted that University leaders are not optimistic that a vaccine will be available to the public in a few months. He did, however, share that if a vaccine does become available in short supply, the University has resources set aside to obtain and provide it for the community members who need it most.
He assured students that to compensate for the lack of a vaccine, the administration will be strictly enforcing mandatory testing twice a week for undergraduates and once a week for student-facing graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, faculty and staff. The testing, provided for free by the University, will utilize the salivic and nucleic acid based model with polymerase chain reaction analysis, tracked through the Prodensity mobile app.
“The testing will be tracked in the same way we have been tracking for compliance, such as the daily health screening to get onto campus [and] required flu shot by the 20th,” he said. “All will be tracked into a harmonized system, and any one of those things not being right will not let you go to campus or enter a building.”
Harvey McGuinness, a member of the Student Advisory Committee, is an immunocompromised student with epilepsy. Because of his condition, he is more cautious about returning to campus. However, he praised the administration for its efforts in protecting those who choose to return in an interview with The News-Letter.
“I’m very impressed by the degree of testing they plan to roll out specifically at twice weekly. The increased testing gives me a greater degree of confidence in the overall plan,” he said. “At the same time, I’m a more medically cautious and pragmatic person, so while I am definitely confident in their approach, I always lean more toward the conservative offering.”
As per the University’s original plans, all classes larger than 50 students will be online. Stephen Gange, executive vice provost for academic affairs, detailed that the University’s goal is to set up the beginning of the spring semester as normal and determine if further actions will be needed from there. Links emphasized that all courses will have a remote option and that no student will be required to be on campus.
Gange highlighted that the University is working under the assumption that the current Student Exchange and Visitor Program will continue, allowing for undergraduate students to be issued visas needed for travel to the United States.
“We recognize that COVID travel restrictions continue for some countries and consulates are not back to full capacity and may not be processing at levels in the past,” he said. “Given that each student’s situation is unique, we highly encourage each of you to keep in contact with advisors from the Office of International Studies.”
Yamashita expressed that she appreciates the University’s attempts to be more transparent with its spring planning, citing these town halls. However, as an international student, she stated that though resources are available, they are not distributed equitably among students.
“In terms of resources, especially for international students, it’s very lacking. I tried to reach out to the Counseling Center to schedule an appointment, but I was told because I’m abroad and not under the school’s insurance, they aren’t able to give me any private counseling services,” she said. “Also with the town halls, most of them are at a time that doesn’t work for my time zone.”
Although she understands that it can be difficult for the University to account for all students, she believes that it should be doing more through its different offices.
“I've been very disappointed with the lack of communication from the Office of International Services because it’s been radio silent all semester apart from occasional emails regarding severances for next semester,“ she said. “[They need to have] more transparent communication and [need to be] letting us know what resources we can access from abroad and make up for the ones we would be missing out on.”
Lu shared a similar sentiment in regards to resources for FLI students. According to Lu, the University is very proactive about making many resources available. However, FLI students have had to rely on one another to actively seek out these resources on their own in order to access them.
Additionally, Yamashita also described her struggles of communicating with Student Employment Services. She was originally hired to be a PILOT leader in the fall but was not able to fulfill her position, as she was told that the University would not be able to compensate her because she is living abroad. She anticipates that these issues will continue into the spring if she is unable to return to campus.
“I had to email employment staff to figure out what’s going on. They said they couldn’t pay international students, and they didn’t really provide an exact reason as to why,” she said. “On the surface, it seems very discriminatory because we’re working the same amount as domestic students or other international students in the U.S., and we don’t get compensated. That’s just unfair.”
McGuinness, on the other hand, commended the University’s Student Disability Services for being accommodating and responsive to his condition. He hopes that the same level of service will continue to be provided to students like him who may not be able to return to campus, despite a hybrid model.
While he agreed that the University should have released its plans for the fall earlier, he justified the University’s seemingly vague updates, which were met with many complaints from the student body. McGuiness, who is a freshman class senator on the Student Government Association (SGA), emphasized that the University does not base its overall decisions on student demands but instead uses student input to tweak the smaller details of its final plan.
“I understand a lot of the communications that were made were along the lines of ‘We don’t know yet.’ But even if it came across as vague, it really was honesty,“ he said. “I do believe that transparency has increased significantly. It was certainly something I pushed for as part of SGA and the planning committee, so I’m very happy about that.”