The beginning of the school year brought a lot of uncertainty and constant change among students, faculty, and staff in regards to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Over the summer, the administration released several COVID-19 guidelines. Guidelines included a mask mandate in University buildings, excluding residential spaces, and a $975 per semester fee for weekly testing for unvaccinated students. The administration also maintained the expectation that the guidelines would be subject to change as the semester progressed. Following a COVID crisis, the University updated their guidelines even more, bringing support and frustration from students and faculty.
The first major change came right as the semester kicked off, when the vice-chancellor announced that by October 5, all students, faculty, and staff must be fully vaccinated. This decision came three days after the FDA fully approved the Pfizer vaccine. Prior to this move, the vaccines were only approved for emergency use. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have still not been fully approved by the FDA, but according to the CDC, are still considered extremely safe and effective.
“I strongly support the University’s decision to require vaccination,” Alexis McKnight, president of the Order of the Gown (C’22), said. “I hope it will alleviate some of the concerns and stress around COVID. As well as make sure that the community is safe and sustainable for the years to come for students to continue to meet in-person.”
According to the University’s COVID dashboard, 92% of all students, 93% of faculty, and 64% of staff are fully vaccinated. The mask mandate is expected to still be enforced for the time being, most likely at least the first semester.
“I think we will still have to wear masks no matter what, as that’s recommended by the CDC currently, and I don’t see the University removing that until the CDC changes their guidelines,” McKnight said.
The Student Government Association and the Order of the Gown held a town hall meeting on Wednesday, September 1, in Gailor Auditorium where students were able to discuss their opinions regarding the start of the semester and the new vaccination requirement and ask any questions.
“After hearing student concerns, I am hopeful for the Town Hall to be able to resolve student’s concerns and also let them air their grievances,” McKnight said.
The administration currently has no plans to reinstate “the bubble” policy that resulted in low COVID positivity rates last year. . Students in the Town Hall said that the bubble would be hard to maintain and makes students getting groceries and other necessities difficult. In addition, the administration wants to encourage personal responsibility among the students as well as trust in the vaccine. The university also provides transportation to vaccination appointments for anyone who needs it.
“It’s incredibly important that we remember that the University knows that it can change and that everything with their plan is in asterisks,” McKnight said. “Everything is willing to change, we’ll have to take it a day at a time.”
After 11 students tested positive for COVID-19, the administration announced on August 31, that they would be requiring all students to receive a rapid COVID test. This decision allowed for the administration to get a better understanding of how widespread the COVID outbreak was on campus and if any guidelines need to be adjusted. Currently, 55 people have tested positive with a positivity rate of 3.05%.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of students say that they are unable to actually isolate properly,” McKnight said. “I’ve heard students say that there is no contact tracing, that they’re afraid, they’re really nervous, they don’t know what to do. I’ve also had faculty reach out to share the same sentiments.”
Following the testing, the University updated their guidelines. According to the vice-chancellor’s email, these included not requiring weekly testing for unvaccinated students. If students contract COVID, they must still quarantine for 10 days, however they have to either go home or isolate themselves in their dorm rooms. The University is no longer providing a quarantine location on or off-campus. In addition, many professors are starting to record lectures and provide a remote instruction option for students who are quarantining.
“I want to be an advocate for the student body and how they feel,” McKnight said. “In regard to the new rules that [the administration] set out, I understand and support them for the justification they gave. As the pandemic is not going to be over, and is most likely going to continue to exist, so we must eventually go back to a new normal.”
The University remains vigilant in their duty to protect students, and remains adamant that the administration has the right to adjust the policies at any time as the CDC guidelines change.
“I think [the university] has the student’s best interests at heart and therefore the vaccination requirement is having the student’s best interests at heart,” McKnight said. “The University is following the CDC guidelines to a tee.”