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VCU students protest COVID conditions, demand online options

People stand in crowd
Virginia Commonwealth University students protest the school's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at its Monroe Park campus. (Photo: Meg Schiffres/VPM News)

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Bo Belotti as Bo Velotti. We have corrected the article and apologize for the error.

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University are protesting the school’s handling of COVID-19  and a lack of hybrid options at the university.

“We deserve a university that prioritizes our health and safety over profit,” said Bo Bellotti. “How many people have to get COVID for VCU to realize their moral failing? How many lives are they willing to risk?”

Last Wednesday, Bellotti joined another 50 students and a handful of faculty in marching through VCU’s Monroe Park campus and demanding the administration act before more people get sick.

The university announced last Monday that teachers can no longer adjust their classes’ modality, meaning whether they’re taught in-person, online or through a hybrid model. Instead, classes must follow the modality listed on VCU’s spring 2022 schedule of classes.

Many students signed up for those classes in November and December, when COVID-19 case rates were lower and before the Omicron variant began infecting both unvaccinated and vaccinated people in Virginia, and they’re protesting the university’s decision not to give teachers the option to provide online options.

“We have a simple ask for the administration - add a hybrid option to all classes so sick students can stay home without risking academic success. And so immunocompromised students do not have to risk their lives to get an education,” Bellotti said.

Like students present at the walk-out and subsequent march, VCU professor Kristin Reed says both she and her students would feel safer learning at least partially from home.

“I would really love as a teacher, just to speak for myself individually, to be able to teach my course in a hybrid model,” Reed said. “I talked to my students this week about whether or not they felt safe in class. Most of them said ‘no.’”

Before VCU’s policy shift earlier this week, professors had the option to move their classes online if they or a majority of their class requested it. Student advocates like graduate student and teaching assistant Frannie Stadlin say that flexibility was crucial in ensuring everyone’s safety.

“I've seen this with my grad classes, if everyone in the class and the professors were on board with switching to an online class, we would switch to an online class. But now professors are being told by the university, ‘That's not allowed. Stick to what's in the class schedule,’” Stadlin said.

Michael Porter, vice president of public affairs at VCU, says the college makes decisions about distance learning by considering a variety of factors.

“VCU makes decisions about operational changes based on the guidance of its Public Health Response Team. The PHRT considers the prevalence of COVID-19 on campus and in the community,  the availability of testing, available hospital space in the region and the availability of space on campus for student isolation and quarantine,” Porter said.

Masking indoors and proof of vaccination are required for students attending VCU, though that may soon change. Recently, however, the university decided to no longer require professors and staff to be vaccinated or submit to daily health screenings and COVID surveillance testing. That announcement came after Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive directive rescinding vaccine mandates for state employees.

This policy shift worries students, who say that the university can no longer guarantee that its classrooms are compliant with CDC guidelines, which state that “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without… physically distancing.” Since teachers are no longer required to prove they’re vaccinated, some students say they don’t feel safe in classrooms where social distancing is impossible.

“They said employees don't need to be vaccinated. And then the next day, I showed up to a class that's not socially distant,” Stadlin said. “I was immediately appalled, because VCU can't guarantee that employees are vaccinated right now.”

Both students and teachers say classrooms are filled to capacity at the university. Last Fall VCU stated classrooms were limited to 66% of capacity. However, VCU’s social distancing guidelines last year specify that course capacities may be increased “as needed.” Now, according to Porter, VCU has no social distancing restrictions in place.

“Course capacity does not equate to classroom capacity.  We have learned that some classrooms still display the restricted capacity numbers, which were effective prior to fall 2021 to ensure appropriate social distancing.  Our VCU facilities management is working to have those signs removed to show the appropriate classroom capacity,” Porter said. .

Gian Tigreros is a junior at VCU who organized the student walk-out. He says every seat in his classes is full, and to him, that feels unsafe.

“I just finished a class that has about 100 people in it, and there's no room to social distance. And people are taking off their masks to take a drink of water, and people are being careful, but we can only be so careful when they're forcing these rules on us,” Tigreros said. “It's just as if there wasn't coronavirus. They're placing us exactly how we would be before.”

Reed says her classrooms are also filled to capacity, a problem made worse by VCU’s dated ventilation systems and cleaning capabilities.

“I would love to see HEPA filters in the classrooms,” Reed said. “The vents are really dirty. This is not a system that has been cleaned or maintained in a way that feels even like basic maintenance. And I do think that maintenance… on campus has been really overtaxed.”

Porter says there are some classes with more students than they can handle, but those are outliers and are currently being investigated.

“The VCU registrar's office has identified 46 of the 6,858 spring 2022 course sections that have actual enrollment that exceeds course capacity. This is likely due to registration overrides approved at the department level. The registrar’s office is working with those departments to verify,” Porter said.

According to VCU’s COVID Dashboard, there are currently 119 active student cases of COVID-19. There are also 49 cases of active employee infections. Based on her experiences as a teaching assistant to about 300 students everyday, Stadlin says those numbers seem low.

“The COVID numbers being reported on VCU’s website just seem really low. As a TA who's receiving emails, every day, at least five students are not able to make it to class, are isolating because of COVID,” Stadlin said.

Students at VCU who develop symptoms of COVID-19 or who test positive for the virus are entitled to an excused absence. However, students say it’s difficult to access doctors for documentation or COVID tests.

“If you get a note saying you have COVID, then you have university-excused absences. But with a lack of testing, a lack of testing sites, it's really hard to get those,” Belotti said.

If they’re not able to provide a note, students say it’s up to individual professors to accept or deny requests for an excused absence. According to Belotti, they’re not always willing to help.

“It's up to your professor to believe you and offer that grace, which some of them will not unfortunately,” Belotti said.

At the same time, teachers and teaching assistants are also under pressure to be more flexible than ever with their students. According to the university, VCU will “exercise flexibility and make temporary adjustments to enable faculty, staff, and students the opportunity to be successful.” That means meeting individual students’ needs, arranging alternative assignments for them, and spending more time than usual on developing their coursework.

“A lot of my coworkers are very accommodating to students and are very concerned about making sure that their students are successful. But they also need support. And a lot of them are working significantly past what they feel is their capacity at this point,” Reed said.

When the pandemic began, VCU students who contracted the virus or who were found to have been in close contact with the virus were quarantined in student housing for two weeks. Today, vaccinated students do not need to be quarantined. Instead, VCU advises people with the virus to wear a mask for 10 days after exposure.

Cyrinah Claybon is a freshman at VCU. Over the last year they’ve been quarantined twice by the university because of their immunocompromised status and contact with people who tested positive for the virus. Claybon says that while they were in isolation, they missed both their midterm and final exams last semester.

“It was up to me to make negotiations with my professors. And a lot of the times it didn't work because again, it was at those crunch periods of time, midterms and finals,” Claybon said. “My GPA dropped a little bit lower because those were two major tests.”

Organizers of the walk-out are also requesting an extension of the university’s add/drop deadlines in order to allow students to adjust their class schedules if necessary.

Clayborn also says conditions in the dorms where VCU housed students in isolation were both uncomfortable and unsafe.

“There'll be a day where I didn't eat, or there'll be a day where I'm only drinking water. Because they couldn't cater to my needs while I was in there,” Claybon said. “If the person didn't clean before you got it in there, you’re the one that has to clean and make it the best that you can. And there's mold in there, there was ladybug infestations in there. It's just not a hospitable place to be.”

Porter says VCU’s policy is to provide fresh meals to students in quarantine housing every day.

“Through their final day of isolation and quarantine period they are delivered fresh breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and liquids daily between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m,” Porter said.

On pest control in quarantine housing, Porter says the university cleans all of its residence halls twice a year. Since August last year, he says the university received only one complaint of bugs infesting dorm rooms.

“We have had a single report, in September 2021, of an unknown type of bug reportedly seen in a room that facilities crews responded to,” Porter said.

Like many other students who showed up to the protest lask week, Tigreros says these policy issues are about everyone’s health and safety.

“We just want the option for people to make their own decisions about their health,” Tigreros said.

Tigeros said they will continue to organize protests against in-person learning requirements at VCU until the administration takes action.