VCU community reacts to in-person return

Before studying for Organic Chemistry, sophomore Taylor Oey, looks over her bullet journal to-do list at the James Branch Cabell Library. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Sahara Sriraman, Contributing Writer

VCU’s decision to allow some students back for in-person and hybrid classes on March 4 has been met with opposition by students and professors. 

David Coogan, an associate professor in English, said professors were given the choice when deciding to teach virtually or in person. 

He teaches a class in the Open Minds program that brings dual-enrollment classes to the Richmond City Justice Center. The program had to stop during the 2020 spring semester because of COVID-19.

He said the university’s decision to switch modulations in the middle of the semester is odd because it can be disruptive to end the semester a different way than it started. 

“I just don’t feel right about bringing people who are vulnerable already to campus,” Coogan said. “It’s intimate, it’s personal.”

Although Coogan, who has been teaching for 28 years, was able to adapt to the virtual teaching environment, he knows the switch can be draining, he said.

“I feel like I’ve missed out on getting to know students the three-dimensional way,” Coogan said.

Senior psychology student Deija Brooks said VCU’s decision to reopen isn’t timely because of rising COVID-19 cases. She worries out-of-state students might struggle to find living spaces on campus, she said.

The quiet third floor of the James Branch Cabell Library allows freshman Maysoon Dawelbeit to take a statistics quiz. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Brooks said she believes the university should offer greater access to COVID-19 vaccines and discounted tuition to students returning to in-person classes.

“I don’t think it’s safe for everyone to just come back and pretend like everything’s normal,” Brooks said.

VCU instructors in the American Association of University Professors sent a letter on Feb. 24 to President Michael Rao, outlining the organization’s apprehension toward a transition to in-person classes.

“We are extremely disappointed that this announcement came with no consultation with, or feedback from, established VCU faculty groups, including Faculty Senate and the COVID Faculty Advisory Group,” the letter stated.

Richmond’s cases haven’t decreased enough for VCU to reopen safely, the letter stated, citing numbers from the Virginia Department of Health. The association stated it is unfair to ask students and faculty to readjust in the middle of the semester. 

The commonwealth has reported a total of 578,559 COVID-19 cases and 8,943 deaths as of Tuesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health. However, VDH is still processing death certificates, so the number of deaths could be higher than this number.

“We are greatly concerned that this substantial change will cause significant disruption to our students’ learning, as well as understandable confusion,” stated the letter from professors.

Ten courses as of this past Thursday have been approved to change their original modalities since VCU announced the return to in-person instruction, university spokesperson Mike Porter said. 

Students were asked to confirm their course modalities on Jan. 22, when add/drop periods were over, Porter said.

The decision to reopen was based on VCU’s Public Health Response Team and Incident Coordination Team and made to ensure safety measures and positive tests were reported, Porter said.

“The recommendation is based on COVID-19 positivity rates at VCU and in the community, testing availability, isolation space on campus and area hospital capacity,” Porter said in an email.

VCU was prompted to make the decision after a faculty information session was held on Jan. 22 and a parent-family town hall was held on Feb. 3 to answer some questions about reopening in the spring, Porter said. 

Jamie Stillman, a VCU spokesperson, said via email that only students who have in-person, hybrid or blended classes this semester should plan to come back to campus. 

Stillman said that if a student isn’t able to return to campus and the instructor can’t accommodate them online, they should contact their academic advisor.

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