Op-Ed: After a series of miscues, Wash. U. has failed students

Evan Jenness & Jojo Spio | Class of 2023

Last week, I received an email from the Music Department stating that due to a violation of the department’s COVID policies, the Tietjens Hall practice rooms would have limited hours for at least the next week, including additional restrictions on how to reserve a room. When I saw this, I was frustrated because it impacts students’ ability to prepare for music lessons; it is upsetting yet not surprising that we have been let down too many times during the past several months. I will review several decisions which led to this point.

The first questionable decision came last summer, when the University announced its reopening plan for the fall semester, which eliminated Fall Break and unpleasantly shifted finals week into January due to the late start of classes. This turned out to be a disaster, with already-exhausted students studying the majority of Winter Break and instructors and AIs needing to turn around final grades in just a few days. But then, the University announced in November that they would exclude Spring Break from this semester’s academic calendar, as well, replacing it with (initially) two wellness days, before Student Union was successful in securing a third.

The lack of clarity from the University has been remarkable this semester, in particular, starting with entry testing upon arrival to campus in January. According to University policy, all students were required to complete a Covid test at the start of the spring semester. However, I found it difficult to sign up for a test, given the hours of the facility. Having managed to book a time slot, I had to cancel it due to a family emergency and was not able to reschedule. I ended up staying the first night in the dorm without being tested after having been in two planes and a busy airport, potentially exposing my suitemate, who had arrived a few days prior. Only after it became clear that many students would not be able to be tested the same day they arrived did the University state that it would allow returning students to move into Residential Life housing before being tested; this could allow the virus to spread among living groups and across campus as students went to in-person classes the following days. Fortunately, neither of us got sick, although this allowance seemed contradictory to the University’s caution in other areas, such as the implementation of wellness days to replace Spring Break.

This semester’s wellness days “to allow for rest and personal time” are in an effort to keep the Covid rates low on campus. However, the lack of a Spring Break seems to have severely impacted the state of students’ mental health, which I could judge by attendance and participation in synchronous/hybrid classes and extracurricular activities. Attendance in all of my classes is lower this semester than last, and my suitemate reports participation in his extracurriculars has dropped by between one-third and one-half compared to last semester. According to a 2017 survey, 61% of Wash. U. respondents reported “above average” or “tremendous” levels of stress. This percentage has likely gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the fear and uncertainty of contracting the virus or spreading it to friends and family has forced many students to face a dilemma: academics or well-being. Observations like these signal to me that students are overwhelmed, exhausted and in dire need of a legitimate break to catch up on sleep, work and time with friends and family.

After the transition to online instruction last spring, the University extended its pass/fail deadline and expanded the policy to include major-required courses to account for the difficult circumstances students faced. While they kept the extended pass/fail deadline for the fall semester, they reverted to the original policy of no pass/fail for distribution and major requirements, which continued for this semester. This reversal has caused undue hardship on students who may already be in challenging personal or financial situations.

I’m grateful to be on campus and attend in-person classes, and I sympathize with those who cannot. Nonetheless, Wash. U. has the capability to support and accommodate students in this defining moment in the school’s history. There are only a few weeks left in the semester: It’s now or never.

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