I’d known the email was coming, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a sinking sense of dread when I saw it in my inbox.
Sent out by the Vice Chancellor, the email- strangely ecstatic in tone, sentences ending in an unprofessional amount of exclamation points abound- reads: “UMass Dartmouth anticipates resuming on-campus, in-person classes for the fall 2021 semester.”
Look. It’s not that I don’t want to go back to campus. I have personal stakes in this; it will be my senior year next year, and there’s so much I miss, so much I want to do. I want to graduate in person, surrounded by the people who have supported me throughout my college career. I want to hang out at Wendy’s, laughing with friends over some fries, a peach lemonade, and a maple donut from Dunkin- and forget any of this ever happened.
But even more than any of those things, I want to feel safe on campus. I want to feel confident that the university has a backup plan- and right now, I don’t.
The root cause of my doubt is the university leadership’s poor handling of the situation a couple of semesters ago, in the height of the Pandemic. Back when Umass Dartmouth
was debating whether they could afford to allow a remote option, I attended town hall meetings where a panel of those in charge of UMD promised to “answer every question” that came their way. I sent in a myriad of questions regarding everything from how much choice people would have about how to take classes, how the University planned to keep COVID from spreading in dorms, and whether staff that worked on campus grounds would be paid- and all but one of my questions was ignored. I don’t know if this is because at the time they genuinely didn’t have the answers, or they didn’t want to address my questions publicly, but either way: don’t promise something you can’t deliver.
I get that the pandemic was something no one in our country (let alone UMD) was really prepared for, but the least you can do when people are scared and uncertain is be honest with them about where everything stands. Don’t just dismiss our questions and concerns (or only answer the ones that are phrased in an indirect manner); if you can’t answer something at least be honest about it. Jumping through these hoops and avoiding getting information out to us until the last minute only sows distrust, and that seems like the last thing you’d want in the time of a crisis.
Right now, the university seems to be proceeding forward with their plans based on a lot of assumptions. Assumption number one: that all or most of the student body and staff will be vaccinated. Vaccine rollout has not been without its share of problems; the reason for some of the challenges in earlier phases of getting vaccines out, according to a Public Health University professor at Harvard, is because “With vaccinations, as we have seen so often in other chapters of this pandemic response, 50 states are going in 50 different direction.” (Sweeney). Being an out-of-stater from New Hampshire, I can confirm that vaccine rollout here has been different here than In Massachusetts. (A quick look at both states’ websites, which can be found here:
…will show the slight differences between the two states’ plans.) I’m not the only one from out of state (or even outside the US) attending this college; UMD will need to account for that fact. And while it is true that most of us are last in line to receive the vaccination- and by that time hopefully most of these kinks will be worked out- that is by no means a guarantee, especially given concern about a new variant of the virus that vaccines may not protect against.
On to Assumption number two: that “many of us would like to return to campus.” While there are indeed those students who enjoy the independence of dorm living, personally it was never my first choice- or the first choice of many I know. In my case, mental illness made living on my own at times a dangerous situation. If I’d been given more opportunity to adjust- to go home more often and do classes remotely- I would’ve had a much better first couple of years. The point is, many of us only “choose” to live in dorms because our classes are in person and it’s too far away to commute, but if we’d been given more flexibility about how to attend I’m willing to bet the University would be surprised how many people would prefer to do at least some classes remotely. For too long, higher education has operated in a way that fails to be welcoming to people with circumstances that make campus living difficult. If COVID forcing us all to do things from home has proven anything, it’s that not only is taking college classes online possible- it’s also more accessible for many of us. And it’s about time UMD and other universities got with the times and adapted to better reflect the different needs of the students attending their school and considered offering more remote options regardless of if the pandemic is still going on.
Finally, Assumption number three: that the UMD community will continue to follow safety regulations. Sure, UMD has been successful in keeping the case number low so far, but there’s also less people on campus then there would be in a normal year (with each person living in a dorm room by themselves at that.) The minute you start letting more people on campus, the risk factor increases. It’s easy enough to monitor the activity level of a few people, but to stop every person on campus from doing things they’re not supposed to? Based on my own personal experience living in both freshmen and sophomore dorms, if students want to party, drink alcohol, or smoke pot even though it’s against the rules- they find ways to do that. So maybe the university can put rules in place to stop people from moving between dorms or being disrespectful and unsanitary by trashing bathrooms, but they can only do so much to ensure those rules are enforced. And as long as the University refuses to acknowledge that factor outright, I’m highly doubtful that they’ll be able to prevent a spread of COVID on campus should that occur.
Having said all of this: I’m in no way trying to claim that returning back to campus in fall 2021 is totally impossible, or that we shouldn’t hope for it to be a reality. I’m just concerned that UMD is rushing to commit themselves to most classes being face to face- and I’d have a lot more confidence in their ability to make that work if I could be reassured they were keeping their options open.
Sweeney, Chris. “Overcoming the initial challenges of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.” Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, January 12, 2021. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/overcoming-the-initial-challenges-of-the-covid-19-vaccine-rollout/ Accessed March 3. 2021