Editor’s Note season 2 episode 11: Students grapple with the spring plan
Over winter break, the Washington University administration announced the plan for the spring semester. The plan included the shift to online classes for the first two weeks of the semester due to the spread of the omicron variant. Students have expressed concerns about other aspects of the administration’s plan, such as the lack of mandates for COVID booster shots and surveillance testing. Senior Multimedia Editor Kamala Madireddi spoke with Managing Editor senior Ted Moskal and Senior Scene Editor sophomore Julia Robbins about the spring plan and student’s reactions to it. Theme music by Jordan Coley.
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
KAMALA MADIREDDI (0:10-1:27): Just as the Washington University campus was beginning to return to a new normal after last semester, the administration announced over winter break that classes would be held online for the first two weeks of the spring semester due to the spread of the omicron variant. In addition to wondering what the rest of the spring semester will look like, students expressed concerns about transparency and general disappointment about the shift to remote learning.
I’m Kamala Madireddi, and you’re listening to Editor’s Note, Student Life’s weekly podcast breaking down our biggest stories with the reporters and editors that covered them.
While emotions regarding the shift to online classes dominated student’s reactions to the spring plan, there have also been concerns about other aspects of the administration’s plan, such as the lack of mandates for COVID booster shots and surveillance testing.
I sat down with Managing Editor senior Ted Moskal, who reported various aspects of the University’s spring plan, and Senior Scene Editor sophomore Julia Robbins, who interviewed students about their reactions to the plan. Moskal and Robbins both outlined what the semester might look like now that we’re about to return to campus.
TED MOSKAL (1:28-2:09): The major element of this plan is that we’re going to have the first two weeks of the semester online, as I’m sure you guys have noticed. After that, as far as we know, the semester is going to be returning to normal, or classes will be shifting to in person, I should say. And it looks like that is going to happen, and the administration has expressed lots of confidence in the fact that we’re going to be able to head back to in-person classes. So that’s really the big takeaway. There have been some academic policy shifts. One of them is the fact that students now get an extra one week to add/drop classes, so that they can actually experience classes in-person, before deciding whether or not they want to make the final decision about taking the class.
JULIA ROBBINS (2:10-2:34): And then, notably, WashU has not mandated a booster, although they are heavily encouraging students and members of the community to get that booster shot. And then additionally there’s no mandate for testing, as of now, which is similar to what it has been like the last semester, but of course differs from what it was like last year when there was mandatory testing once every two weeks.
KM (2:35-2:40): Moskal explained the administration’s justification for the lack of booster shot mandates.
TM (2:41-3:22): So the justification that administrators gave at a town hall last week, Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, who runs Habif, said this, it’s more of a difficult trade off between respecting people’s personal health decisions and countering omicron. It’s less of an easy decision than it was last semester [with the initial vaccination mandate]. So I think the number they had given was they expected around 75% of the student population to still get that booster shot if there’s no mandate, which is pretty high. But, yeah, obviously that could still change if as the semester goes on omicron gets worse, and we start seeing a surge on campus, they’re very much could be a booster mandate implemented. That’s not the case right now.
KM (3:23-3:30): Moskal and Robbins both emphasized that this decision sets Washington University apart from other peer institutions.
TM (3:31-3:50): One actually major difference that WashU is not following but other universities have done in the past, is the booster mandate. WashU is one of very few top 20 schools that isn’t requiring booster mandates. That’s one major difference where WashU has kind of diverged from its peer institutions.
JR (3:51-4:21): Yeah and in addition to what Ted just said about WashU not requiring the booster, other universities of our caliber, many of them are also starting to have testing requirements, and we are not doing that yet. So again, as Ted said about other parts of this plan, time will tell if that part of the plan changes. If testing does become a requirement again, but as of now, the administration hasn’t shown any sign that that is going to be happening in the near future.
KM (4:22-4:30): In an interview with Robbins, first-year Alexandra Weiss mentioned that she was surprised at the lack of mandated booster shots and surveillance testing.
ALEXANDRA WEISS (4:31-5:14): I originally didn’t think that they were going to push us online because we hadn’t mandated boosters and we didn’t have weekly testing. So in my mind, I thought they would go to those two steps first, instead of switching us online, but they skipped those two steps and then went straight to putting us online. As with last year, I feel like a lot of the announcements they have, they send so many mixed messages, because from the email from the chancellor, they don’t really hint at a reason as to why we’re getting pushed back other than there’s omicron. Then on the FAQ site it says classes will start in person given regional conditions, which makes it seem that it’s related to how COVID is in St. Louis.
KM (5:15-5:33): Although the University hasn’t mandated surveillance testing for vaccinated students, students are required to complete a pre-arrival and entry test using COVID test kits that were mailed to students. Similar to last semester, diagnostic testing will remain available for students who wish to get tested.
JR (5:34-6:09): I think one of the interesting things will be looking at this spring is how frequently students are choosing to get tested compared to what they were doing this past semester, based on how contagious omicron is because obviously students who are getting tested last semester if they felt like they might have been exposed or they had symptoms and everything like that. But there’s a chance that there’s going to be an uptick and students who choose to get tested this upcoming semester more regularly just out of a fear that COVID is spreading more easily based on this new variant and that they might have been exposed without even realizing.
KM (6:10-6:18): In addition to concerns about the lack of booster and testing mandates, Robbins recalled that students had concerns about online classes in particular.
JR(6:19-7:04): Students expressed a lot of emotions and reactions to the spring plan. Many of them were not the most positive, but that’s not just about the spring plan itself, but about the limitations that online schooling has always been bringing to students’ educational and social life. So I think there was this overall sadness and anxiety surrounding the fact that we were once again returning to online school, even if it was for a truncated amount of time compared to periods in the past. So that was a major concern of students, just the emotional toll that that takes on them. There were concerns about things like Wi-Fi at home and not having a space to do work. Those have been universal concerns throughout the pandemic that we’ve seen time and again.
KM (7:05-7:22): Even though exemptions were available for students who either stayed on campus over winter break or wouldn’t have been able to remotely attend classes from home, Weiss told Robbins that she chose not to come back to campus because of the extra difficulties that arise from limited services on campus.
AW (7:23-8:00): I think that I would qualify for an exemption, but, one, it just would be super isolating there because so few people are going to be allowed back on campus that there’s just going to be no one there for 10 days. And then I already have a hard enough time, because I’m gluten-free, finding food. I already have a difficult time trying to get food that I can eat. So if everything is super limited, then I don’t imagine that that’s going to be a great situation…they didn’t even explain what the options were. They were just like, ‘It’s going to be very limited.’ Like, they could have published a dining schedule. Just being more transparent, which was an issue they had.
KM (8:01-8:10): While there were logistical concerns with the first two weeks of classes being remote, Robbins noted that students expressed mental health concerns as well.
JR (8:11-8:47): At least in terms of student reactions, not much is surprising, it’s more just a fatigue that’s been going on for now approaching two years about the detriments of online schooling and what it does, the toll it takes on people’s mental health. This is not about the University policy being right or wrong in any way, but I just think that students have been bringing up the same points for two years now. And so those ideas that they were discussing weren’t really surprising, they’ve become very commonplace at this point, unfortunately.
KM (8:54-9:14): Editor’s Note will be back next week to break down another developing story. Head to studlife.com to check out more of our recent coverage, like the preparations for the Lunar New Year Festival’s upcoming performance and a look into WU’s Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. For Student Life Media, I’m Kamala Madireddi.
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