SA meets online to discuss COVID-19’s impacts on campus

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EMMA FORD AND KIM LORES / THE FLAT HAT

Tuesday, March 24, senators participated in the College of William and Mary’s weekly Student Assembly meeting in an atypical fashion. Rather than filing into Blow Hall Tuesday at 7 p.m as representatives did for the first half of the semester, senators and SA’s executive branch hosted the meeting through Zoom, an online video-conferencing software, because of the College’s suspension of on campus classes following the COVID-19 pandemic. The Zoom meeting was watched by 767 people on SA’s Facebook livestream.

At the meeting, senators passed two bills designed to assist the College during this interim period and addressed students’ questions regarding many administrative changes made by the College since its announcement of temporary protocols March 11. Student comments focused on refunds for room and board, assistance to workers, the College’s creation of an opt-in pass fail system and the College’s emergency response fund.

Senators pass the COVID-19 Response Resolution

Senators first passed the COVID-19 Response Resolution, sponsored by Sen. Will Wasson J.D. ’21, which called for a suspension of SA’s internal rules regarding attendance, quorum, committee requirements and executive privilege to speak during Senate meetings. Wasson said that this would allow for an easier transition to conducting SA business online and grant senators an improved ability to act swiftly in a time of crisis.

SA President Kelsey Vita ‘20 addressed many of these concerns and updated students on her conversations with the administration.

March 19, College President Katherine Rowe announced that campus was closed to students and that all students residing in their dorm rooms needed to move out by March 25. Some student activist groups, including the College’s Young Democratic Socialists of America and William and Mary Worker’s Union, expressed concern that this declaration put many students in vulnerable situations and that the College needed to help students secure temporary housing and other needs.

Many students attending the meeting expressed concerns over how the College was assisting these students, and vocalized confusion regarding which students could access the university’s emergency funds. Vita said that she has participated in extensive meetings with the administration discussing these concerns.

“We know that this has been a really scary time for students,” Vita said. “Honestly, getting students safe and in a secure place by Wednesday has been our biggest focus for the past few days. It’s been basically what we have been dedicating our efforts to … I’ve been talking to the Dean of Students and Vice President Ambler every day just to make sure that all of these students who are still in dorms right now do have someplace to be come Wednesday … We have just been working to make sure that each individual student has been contacted and that they are given resources to be somewhere come Wednesday … From what I have been told, this was today and yesterday, is that every student on that list has been called and they’ve worked on  a plan together so that they do have some place to be on Wednesday.”

Vita urged that all students who had not been contacted should reach out to her personally so she could get in contact with the Dean of Students Office and verify that those students did receive resources and assistance. She added that any student still on campus who has not contacted the Dean of Students Office will not be displaced until they have housing to access.

“We were pretty nervous kind of getting these emails from a lot of different students,” Vita said. “And I understand that a lot of students who filled out the form that went to the Dean of Students Office did not hear back for a few days and that’s scary. I don’t think that should have happened … I understand this is such a scary time and to not hear back for a few days especially when everything else is going on, that’s really scary.”

“I understand this is such a scary time and to not hear back for a few days especially when everything else is going on, that’s really scary.”

Vita also thanked student organizers who put together a student W&M Support Network Resource spreadsheet to assist students looking for housing and resources at this time. SA Vice President Ellie Thomas ’20 also encouraged students and alumni to make donations to the HEART Fund or the International Student Scholarship Fund, which provide emergency aid to students in need.

Public commentators expressed confusion over who could access the emergency funding and questioned whether that funding only applied to students who were on campus or could be provided to other students struggling financially.

Vita explained that the fund supports all students needing financial assistance at this time and is not exclusively reserved for students on campus. She stressed that this form is not just for housing needs but can apply to other financial needs.

“The way it was explained to me is that when a student fills out the form that goes to the Dean of Students that they need emergency funding, and that’s not just for housing, it’s like you know, I can’t afford food for the next two weeks, I need transportation, any of those needs would qualify,” Vita said.

Senators approve the Emergency Pandemic Relief Act

After this discussion, senators passed the Emergency Pandemic Relief Act, sponsored by Senate Chair Anthony Joseph ’21. The act contributes $35,000 in emergency funding to the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs, matching the total that the administration has spent so far on emergency response for students. Twenty thousand dollars will be given to the administration immediately, and the second tier of funding, $15,000, will be available to the administration if they exhaust the first tier. Senators allocated this amount because the administration suggested it would be the amount needed to adequately respond to students.

Vita said that she would be willing to exercise her executive power to call a special emergency session of the Senate sometime in the next few days if the funds were depleted before next week’s meeting.

Senators debate interim pass/fail policy, administrative rebates

Another point brought up by both senators and members of the public was the issue of the College’s interim grading policy, which allows students greater flexibility in taking spring semester classes on a pass/fail basis.

Several students argued that this policy is unfair since it would end up favoring students with more resources at home. Additionally, there were concerns about how graduate schools and future employers would view students who chose to take classes pass/fail when they still had the option to take standard letter grade courses.

Sen. Angela Tiangco ’20 also urged senators to keep pushing for the Universal Pass system when dealing with administration.

“Having a note is only useful to the extent where the grad school would be accepting of it,” Tiangco said. “The issue with not having a universal pass policy is the fact that opt-in makes it an option for people with more resources to do better than those with less resources. Regardless of anyone’s situation, we should not be putting people in that position. Students should not have to fight to explain their own situations, especially in a global pandemic …”

“The issue with not having a universal pass policy is the fact that opt-in makes it an option for people with more resources to do better than those with less resources. Regardless of anyone’s situation, we should not be putting people in that position.

Many members of the public voiced displeasure with the administration’s decision to refund most residential students $1,200, which they saw as a partial and insufficient rebate. The College said that this decision stemmed from their desire to support staff members during this time, but students commented that other Virginia public schools had provided more in rebates to their residential students. Senators also expressed concerns about not getting a prorated refund for parking passes.

Tara McLaughlin ’23 asked why the College could not both support its workers and refund students when it is trying to reach a $1,000,000,000 endowment. Chief of Staff Abhi Chadha ’20 pointed out that donations within the endowment are frequently earmarked for specific purposes.

“When we refer to the endowment, which, there is currently a drive, of course, for it to reach a billion dollars,” Chadha said. “The way the endowment works is when the money is raised, it tends to be automatically allocated to various causes already. There is very little in what we call unrestricted funding, which can go really anywhere, which is why so much of the last few weeks, the discussions around helping specific students have been coming from individual funds that the Office of Vice President of Student Affairs raises.”

Students expressed concerns about the lack of information they have received regarding the situation for university employees, including housing and maintenance staff and dining hall employees. Kat Baganski ’21, a member of the William & Mary Workers Union, said she wanted to be updated on whether the College planned to keep paying them their full salaries, and whether they were considered essential staff who should still report to work.

“Specifically, our maintenance and housekeeping staff get a lot of mixed messages, they’re told they’re essential, they’re told they’re not essential, but no matter what, they’re the ones who are coming in in these conditions and working,” Baganski said. “If William & Mary is stating they’re not going to give us our full prorated refunds because they’re supporting workers, I would like to know what actions they are taking to support their workers … there hasn’t really been much clarity on that front.”

Vita clarified that any student employees who were financially impacted by the College’s recent decisions regarding the pandemic could apply for compensation through the same funding process that covered students needing money for housing and transportation.

Sen. Derek Kernus ’14 M.B.A. ’20 urged his fellow senators to focus their attention on the aspects of tuition and fees for which they will not receive any services during the rest of the remote semester. These payments include fees such as the athletics fee for teams that will not be playing their spring seasons. Kernus suggested that the administration should look through the breakdown of student fees and decide which ones should be refunded to students, since they are no longer on campus.

“I want to comment that I think the administration, people should be talking about returning part of these student fees,” Kernus said. “Because my first thought when I saw what was being returned … the fact that there wasn’t anything out there specifically about the athletics fee, when we’re not going to be able to go to baseball games, and we already paid for those tickets … that whole season was cancelled, and I don’t see why they get to keep that money. And I know that there are other fees that should be returned as well. That’s just the easy one that comes right off the top of my head.”

McLaughlin asked why SA could not use a bulk of its $500,000 budget toward supporting the response to the pandemic. Vita and Chadha explained that most of SA’s budget has already been allocated toward student organizations, and that the Senate only had control over the Reserves, which will support SA’s $35,000 contribution.

At the end of the meeting, Vita expressed her gratitude for the senators for working closely with the administration while handling their own transition to online classes.

“I just want to say thank you to all of you that we’re still doing the work that we are doing although we’re not physically on campus and I know that this is a really scary, stressful time.” Vita said. “Something that I have been thinking about, everyone here is probably handling their own life stress because we are in an international pandemic, and I am sure you all are thinking about your own safety and keeping your own families secure, and I just appreciate that you’re still making the time to do this job because it really is important for our community and our students.”

To view Tuesday’s meeting, click here.

Also at this week’s meeting:                                                                                  

  • Wasson introduced the Graduate Onboarding Act, which moves to allow graduate senators to begin serving their terms in the Senate when they are appointed, rather than at the beginning of a new Senate session.
  • Class of 2020 President Cody Mills ’20 emphasized to the class of 2020 that he continues to have conversations with administration regarding commencement.
  • SA elections are now underway, and the election is set for April 2. Access the candidate list here and keep updated with The Flat Hat’s coverage.