With Covid rates falling nationally, most college students have returned to in-person classes. While some universities continue to offer remote options for students, other campuses have enforced a unilateral return.
This includes my own school, the University of California–Davis. In a joint school-wide email sent on December 30, 2021, the chancellor and the provost of UC Davis wrote that since “the Omicron variant is highly transmissible and appears to cause milder disease in vaccinated and boosted people, we are entering a new phase of adapting our campus approach and activities to living with COVID-19 at an endemic level.”
Though many students have embraced the return to in-person education, some still express grave doubts about a swift return to pre-pandemic practices. Universities defend their policy of returning to in-person classes by pointing out their exemption process. At UC Davis, for example, students with documented medical issues or disabilities can seek permission from the Student Disability Center (SDC) to take courses online and Disability Management Services (DSM) for graduate students to teach courses online. The approval requires a lengthy bureaucratic process though in which those offices alone wield the unilateral power to decide which medical issues or disabilities are worthy of exemption.
Second-year PhD student Heather Ringo estimates that she has spent over a hundred hours trying to procure learning and teaching accommodations. “I have been denied or been forced to justify my access needs with SDC and DMS and other university representatives dozens of times. My overall experience has been exhausting, demoralizing, dehumanizing, and rendered me unable to focus on my research, teaching, and writing that I came to UC Davis to accomplish.” In response to a Public Records Act request, UC Davis did not provide how many applications related to in-person attendance SDC and DSM have denied, but said that they would reply “on or around April 18, 2022.”
Many UC Davis students are not satisfied with the school’s protocols. A petition, created by UC Davis undergraduate adnan Minasian, called on the university to continue offering unrestricted remote options for students to help “highlight how many people were upset, to educate people on how harmful the language was, and to create a network of people who were angry” with the university’s policies. The petition garnered over 9,000 signatures and a virtual town hall was held on January 28 to discuss ways UC students could organize for alternatives to in-person teaching, including working with tenured faculty.
This approach is being modeled at nearby UC Irvine. According to PhD candidate Canton Winer, the graduate students in the school’s sociology department were concerned about how the university was proceeding with in-person classes, and brought their concerns to tenured faculty in their department. “I reached out to the graduate directors and the department chair and asked them to support a policy of universal access to continued online learning.” When asked why tenured faculty felt it was important to support the graduate students’ requests, department chair and tenured faculty member Dr. David John Frank explained that the faculty felt it was important “to express solidarity with our students.”
On January 31, an email was sent to students on behalf of all faculty in the Department of Sociology stating that they would “commit to accommodating continued online learning for all students who self-determine that they need such accommodations, no questions asked, for the remainder of winter quarter.” The department’s policy effectively allows students to participate in courses online even if they do not meet or did not apply for official exemption through Student Disability Center.
As part of sociology’s commitment to hybrid accommodations this quarter, professors record and upload their lectures or offer students the option to join class via Zoom. Dr. David Meyer, a tenured faculty member in the sociology department, says that this often results in more work for the instructor. However, Dr. Meyer has chosen to offer these accommodations because “everyone is struggling with Covid and we all have to do what we can to not make it worse.”
As the pandemic continues and many institutions continue to disregard the safety concerns of students, we must seek out tangible ways that individuals and groups in power can assist those most vulnerable in the higher ed system. The UC Irvine Sociology department serves as a model for how tenured faculty can and should utilize their privilege to protect students in the face of neglectful institutional policies.