by JOSEPHINE JOHNSON
Following President Paino’s announcement that campus will reopen on Sept. 10, students received an email from Wesley Hillyard, Director of Academic Services, announcing that instructors are not required to offer the option of a fully online class.
“While we cannot authorize students to remain virtual in face-to-face courses, we are committed to doing as much as possible to help our students stay on track and successful even in such challenging times,” said Hillyard in an interview.
Provost Nina Mikhalevsky sent a similar email to UMW faculty.
“Faculty have designed most hybrid and face-to-face classes with specific learning outcomes that require on-campus work,” said Mikhalevsky. “If a student is uncomfortable with the required, on-campus activity of the course and no academically viable alternatives are possible in that course, then that student should be strongly advised to withdraw from the course.”
However, before the announcement that UMW will return to campus, university spokesperson Lisa Chinn Marvashti told USA Today that all UMW courses “could be converted” to an online format. That article was published Aug. 12.
In an email exchange with the reporter from USA Today, Anna Billingsley, associate vice president for University Relations also confirmed that, after the initial three weeks of the semester, all courses would have an online option.
“My earlier response may have been somewhat misleading,” said Billingsley in an interview. “Because our return has been delayed, you are correct in that ALL classes have been online. Now that we have announced decisively that there will be in-person learning, students are unable to change their course schedules.”
The deadline for swapping in-person classes for virtual options was extended to Sept. 4. Students who cannot meet in person must drop the class in question by Sept. 11.
Some students are disappointed and frustrated with the announcement.
“The process leading up to getting all my classes online was beyond frustrating,” said Sam Price, junior communication and digital studies major. “For months I was going around in circles with no one giving me concrete answers and telling me I was going to have to drop my classes.”
Some students were not able to create a full time online schedule, even with the options of dropping and swapping classes.
“I found it was actually impossible for me to change my schedule to be online only,” said junior historic preservation major Sarah Andrews. “There just weren’t any classes available in online format that were relevant to my major, minor, or remaining [general education] requirements.”
Hillyard advises students having to drop necessary classes for their major to either contact the department chair, their academic advisor or his own office.
This issue raised concerns among students for their own safety.
“It terrifies me to think just how badly things could go if we did have an outbreak, and if I caught [COVID-19] as a result,” said Andrews.
Virginia universities have had rapidly rising case rates and some, such as James Madison University, have already sent students home in favor of an entirely virtual semester.
“At the end of the day it’s the university basically stating that their money is more important than my health,” said sophomore biochemical sciences major Skylar Houston.
In the email sent to students from Hillyard, it states that students with a documented disability can register with the Office of Disability Resources (ODR) to receive accommodations. However, ODR’s requirements for accommodations are less lenient than many students would like.
“Students are not eligible for approved accommodations from ODR because they now have concerns about [returning to campus] and do not wish to come to campus or they have an immune-compromised family member,” said Jessica Machado, director of Disability Resources.
The Office of Disability Resources offers accommodations but cannot mandate a change in any course.
“Accommodations can’t create more or different options, but given the options that are available, we’ll do the best we can to support our students with disability related needs by working through our processes,” said Machado.
Many concerns are from those who are either immunocompromised or living in close contact with someone who is.
“With my autoimmune disease, I wouldn’t just be dealing with the virus’s symptoms. I would be dealing with the complications associated with my condition such as my immune system causing painful inflammation and kidney failure. And this is definitely something that all these students and other people around the country don’t seem to understand,” said Andrews.
Students are not only concerned for their own health and safety, but with the quality of their college experience.
“Immunocompromised students have been, and still are, in isolation due to COVID-19,” said Price. “That means not being able to see our friends and having to sacrifice our college experience this fall, so are we expected to sacrifice our education too?”