Students and faculty express relief and concern over Columbia’s return to campus

By Nathan Sirkin, Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones

Wynter Bates, a junior music major, was happy with the return to campus at the start of the spring semester. With this year being their last year at Columbia, they thought a virtual start would be disappointing.

“We had to go virtual for a while, and having paid so much money, and wanting to really connect with people, [going virtual] would have been a big loss of opportunity,” Bates said.

Prior to returning to classes and work in college offices, everyone in the Columbia community was required to have a one-time negative COVID-19 test no more than three days prior to their first visit back to campus, regardless of vaccination status. Boosters for eligible campus community members or weekly testing were also required beginning Jan. 24.

Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David said in early January the college began looking at a range of scenarios for returning to campus. She said one advantage was that Columbia had a later start to the semester than other schools, allowing them to monitor the COVID-19 situation.

“We actually had a lot of time for us to be able to adjust and understand what the situation was,” David said. “But we were waiting to see and hoping that what did occur would occur, which is that we actually peaked in Chicago, and we began to see the city be a little less impacted by COVID and the surge we were seeing just at the beginning of January.”

Despite this, there were still some concerns as the semester began from students and faculty leadership.

DJ Light, a freshman film and television arts major, said despite not learning well virtually, she would prefer to return to remote instruction.

“If we keep trying to force everything to be in-person because that’s how we prefer it to be, we’re going to end up prolonging [COVID-19] and things like the omicron spike,” said Light, who is disabled. “And we’re going to get new variants that evolve because we don’t just quarantine and let it die out.”

Light empathizes with students preferring to return in-person due to having a hard time focusing online but does not think it is worth the risk.

“The people who are most likely to catch it [and have the worst cases] are disabled people who are immunocompromised,” Light said. “And it’s like, ‘So you’re okay with them dying?’

“I think everyone should get the best learning experience that they can get, especially when Columbia is so expensive,” Light said. “But [COVID-19] is going to be prolonged, and you’re not going to have the good learning experience.”

Jade Bailey, a freshman film major, is among the students happy to return to campus, referencing their difficulty learning online.

“On Zoom, I can’t focus because it’s not in the classroom,” Bailey said. “I just feel like I’m watching a video of a lecture and not actually participating.”

Scheduling and comfort would also be an issue for Bailey, since all of her classes take place over two days. If instruction returned to remote, she would be on Zoom for nine hours a day, for two days of the week.

“I feel like the school has done everything that they could do,” Bailey said. “We had to get vaccines and the boosters, [we had to] test and wear masks. So I feel like we should be pretty solid.”

Bates also mentioned tuition being a factor for them wanting to return to campus.

“We are paying a lot of money for tuition,” Bates said. “Some people could have transferred and … done virtual learning for a lot less money.”

Karel Ramirez, a junior television major, would prefer a hybrid method of instruction.

“I just started a new job back in November. [With hybrid instruction], I could still work and do school at the same time while bringing in more money,” Ramirez said. “You know, classes [will be] in person, but if it was virtual, or partly virtual, I could still work and do classes at the same time.”

Ramirez is also immunocompromised, and illnesses like the common flu are of concern.

“[COVID-19 is] more of a concern, because we still don’t know a lot about it,” Ramirez said. “Long-term effects are just now starting to be studied. So we don’t know what this will look like down the road.”

Madhurima Chakraborty, president of the Faculty Senate and associate chair of the English and Creative Writing Department, said returning to campus has been stressful for some faculty members, such as parents of unvaccinated children.

“There are also people who are caretakers, caregivers for people who are immunocompromised, or may be immunocompromised themselves,” Chakraborty said. “There’s a lot of different situations that I think have not gone away.”

Chakraborty also said there are stressors beyond just being safe from COVID-19, such as disruption and uncertainty. Disruptions can include a sudden switch in learning from in-person to remote, which can be difficult for faculty with children.

“This happens constantly. And so their kid is at home doing school, there’s no option for childcare, and the school won’t let us bring our kids into campus,” Chakraborty said. “In this scenario, nobody related to the faculty members is actually sick, but it’s incredibly disruptive regardless.”

Chakraborty said she thinks if faculty members had a choice about the modality they want to teach in, they would be feeling better as a group, and according to Chakraborty, some faculty feel as if they did not have a choice.

Diana Vallera, president of CFAC — the part-time faculty union — and adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department, said the way some aspects of the return to campus occurred were “disappointing and disheartening.”

Vallera serves on a task force alongside Chakraborty for returning to campus, and the task force has been meeting every week since the pandemic hit.

According to Vallera, some changes were made without the union’s input.

“That’s a very serious [issue] because you should bring in all leaders of all stakeholders,” Vallera said. “And when you have a union, you have legal obligations. As president of the union, we’re going to advocate very strongly for our members.”

She referred in part to students being able to test at home, noting that some students would need to test weekly, and she worried that the college will not be able to verify the authenticity of results of home testing and that students may pay for those tests out of pocket.

Vallera said the faculty care about teaching and want to be there with their students but need to be involved in the decision-making process.

David said that the return to campus was a collaborative effort, which included a “host of layers,” which took into consideration safety protocols and consultations with the Incident Assessment Task Force, the Campus Reopening Task Force, doctors and others.

David noted the involvement of full- and part-time faculty on the Campus Reopening Task Force, which she said “is very important to the process.”

“My understanding is that there was some conversation about the possibility of a delayed start and the benefits and the detriments of a delayed start in the Campus Reopening Task Force,” David said. “So I don’t know what to say about the claims that there was no input.”

David said the school’s planning was helped by the fact that it had additional time compared to other colleges and universities. She noted that some schools returned to classes as early as the first week in January.

David said if it turned out that the situation had not been improving, there were opportunities for the school to revisit the decision to return to campus.

As of 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 28, there were four active COVID-19 cases among students, employees, college contractors or visitors.