Virginia students demand improved COVID-19 policies

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Representatives from several Virginia universities met Monday, Sept. 14 to discuss student activists' movements in the wake of campuses reopening for the fall 2020 semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic. COURTESY PHOTO / YSPN

Monday, Sept. 14, student representatives from several Virginia universities met over Zoom to discuss their reactions to colleges’ reopening plans for the fall semester. The forum was organized by New Virginia Majority, a non-profit organization based in Richmond, and featured representatives from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason University and the College of William and Mary.

Organizer of the New Virginia Majority Kalia Harris introduced the forum’s purpose and explained her work with New Virginia Majority and the Virginia Student Power Network, another advocacy group connecting student activists from across the state. She began the forum by illustrating COVID-19’s severity on university campuses since they began reopening during late August and early September. Harris than emphasized the importance of hearing directly from students as they experience COVID-19 response plans firsthand at their respective institutions.

After Harris’s introduction, VSPN Director Ibby Han provided an overview of student activists’ movements and demands throughout Virginia and contextualized these demands by reminding viewers of rising case totals at several universities across the state.

“… This is a really urgent public health crisis. We’re nearing over 2,000 cases on college campuses statewide. I don’t think this came as a surprise to anyone. We know that colleges, college campuses, dorm life, would all be incubators, and frankly, super-spreader locations, for the COVID-19 virus.”

“… This is a really urgent public health crisis. We’re nearing over 2,000 cases on college campuses statewide,” Han said. “I don’t think this came as a surprise to anyone. We know that colleges, college campuses, dorm life, would all be incubators, and frankly, super-spreader locations, for the COVID-19 virus.”

VCU student Taylor Maloney first commented on Virginia universities’ conscious decision to bring students, staff and faculty back to campus, despite substantial indicators suggesting that doing so would be detrimental to the health of campus and local communities. Maloney said this problem was especially pertinent at VCU and in Richmond, since any risk of COVID-19 spread among VCU students would disproportionately burden Richmond’s local Black and Brown communities near the university.

“In general, I feel like VCU is in a unique situation,” Maloney said. “Unlike most of the Virginia colleges, and especially the public institutions, it’s integrated in the city in a different kind of way. We’re pretty close to the majority Black and Brown populations of Richmond … all that to say that VCU’s opening meant we’re going to tell the community that you’re going to have to deal with all these new, incoming first year students who have never left their parents’ house and were forced into isolation all summer … To do that was to basically say that we know what students were going to do and how they were going to act, but we’re going to cover our bases and put our ducks in a row by putting hand sanitizer in the student commons, or having fewer in-person classes. All in all, it was a really irresponsible choice that VCU did that’s obviously driven by money.”

Kibiriti Majuto ’21, a student at the College , followed Maloney in giving his testimony. He said that the College has placed excessive emphasis on the role that individuals and students play in combating COVID-19’s spread on campus, while neglecting the university’s own responsibility to create cohesive, community-level responses. While the College encourages students to exercise individual autonomy when adhering to mask wearing and social distancing requirements, Majuto said it is doing an insufficient job ensuring student safety. He said one of the policies where this pattern is most visible is the College’s prevalence testing protocol, which aims to randomly test five percent of students and staff every two weeks.

“The five percent sample is not enough, that William and Mary is doing,” Majuto said. “… That five percent has to be increased. That’s not a great sample to account for every single person who’s back.”

The conversation then shifted to UVA, with student Sarandon Elliott describing the current state of affairs in Charlottesville. Elliott helped organize a ‘die in’ on UVA’s Lawn earlier this month before UVA returned to in-person classes Sept. 8, where more than 50 students laid down motionless for 15 minutes to convey the risks inherent in welcoming students back to grounds.

Elliott said she is most concerned about exposing her family back at home in Richmond to COVID-19 upon her return from UVA and urged university administrators across the state to pay more attention towards the potential human costs associated with holding in-person coursework this fall.

“This is very personal for me,” Elliott said. “I’m from Richmond, born and raised … I’m scared every day. I’m scared of exposing my family. I’m afraid if with VCU’s poor planning as well, I’m scared for my family in Richmond, I’m scared to bring it back from Charlottesville. We’ve all seen what happens when these very large institutions do not do their part during public health crises.”

Several other students, including representatives from VT and GMU, also enunciated concerns with their universities’ reopening plans, including a lack of hazard pay for essential employees and precarious housing situations for international students. Some representatives also brought up concerns about intimidation and harassment against student activists by college administrations, impeding their work throughout the state.

After participating in the forum, Sidney Miralao ’21 followed up on her concerns with the College’s philosophy in blaming students for poor adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols. Students have received multiple emails from the Dean of Students Office since freshmen first arrived Aug. 12, some of which have insinuated that institutional outcomes at the College — including furloughing employees and suspending in-person classes — are highly dependent on student behavior.

“Like Taylor from VCU mentioned, if William and Mary’s decision for re-opening campus was centered around student safety, equity, and well-being, they would not have invited the entire undergraduate population back to campus to try and create a “normal” semester,” Miralao said in an email. “Nothing about living through a pandemic, economic crisis, and national uprisings should be treated as normal. Specifically, asking students to police and surveil one another in addition to increasing the police presence on and around campus during a time of uprising against police seems particularly tone deaf — administrators are the ones who forced students to return this semester, they cannot burden and blame socially-deprived young people if an outbreak occurs; this is not to say students should be free to party and gather in large groups (which wouldn’t have happened if students were not invited back to Williamsburg), but answering such behavior with threats and aggressive consequences does nothing to improve the situation and only further alienates the student body from trusting the administration and its decisions.”