EDITORIAL: Responding to the University's COVID-19 policies
On March 11, University President Ron Liebowitz sent an email to the Brandeis community outlining the changes the University would be implementing in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The email came a day after the governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, declared a state of emergency following a spike in the number of confirmed cases in the state.
This board sympathizes with the team of administrators that were forced to make these difficult decisions. A global pandemic leading to the widespread closure of universities is unprecedented, and entirely new procedures needed to be developed. University employees, just like students, have been inundated with constant news updates, and are not immune to the fear and stress that the world is grappling with. We thank them for placing the health of this community first, and wish them success in balancing their professional commitments with the needs of their families.
This board would also like to commend the University for, at the very least, handling the present situation in a more sensitive fashion than some other universities. Undergraduates at Harvard University, for example, were forced to evacuate their dorms in only five days. From the time Liebowitz’s email was sent, Brandeis students had two weeks to move out, with three days off of class to facilitate the transition. We appreciate the extra time this provides for students to make travel arrangements and to say goodbye.
In the meantime, this board would like to thank all University staff members for their continued work in campus offices, dining locations and residence halls to keep our home operational. We appreciate the risk that they are exposing themselves to, and call on the University to treat them with dignity and care — and consideration for their livelihoods — following our departure. We ask for measures to offset any work hours lost in the early closure and paid sick leave for all staff who need it. We also want to recognize professors, department heads and other staff for working to transition to online instruction rapidly, along with adjusting attendance requirements and exam schedules.
University communication efforts
This board appreciates everything the University is doing to manage the rapidly changing crisis, but we also recognize clear issues that have plagued the University’s communication efforts that have made the situation more confusing, stressful and chaotic for the Brandeis community.
Liebowitz’s March 11 email to the community was long and unclear, leaving many students confused about the basic details of when classes would be in session and the future of the housing situation. The email’s concluding section seemed focused on encouraging students and faculty to maintain academic rigor and focus, with little recognition awarded to the fact that students’ academic world is about to change drastically, and that academic focus is a far-off idea for many students unsure of where they will be living in the coming weeks. The email also came after an announcement that classes were moving online had already been posted to various Brandeis websites, referring students to read an email that was not yet in their inboxes.
The announcement that all student club events were canceled — made in an email sent to the Club Leaders listserv on March 10 — was particularly destructive to student morale. Coming before any announcement was made about classes, the statement from the Department of Student Activities threw student life into chaos and panic. Additionally, only sending the email to club leaders — instead of announcing it in a formal way to all of campus — created unnecessary confusion among students, who had to screenshot and forward the email to everyone who was impacted by, but not included in, the announcement. Exacerbating this confusion, Liebowitz’s email the following day banned in-person events with more that 20 attendees, but made no mention of club events.
This board recognizes that the University is facing a difficult and unprecedented situation, and we appreciate all efforts to keep us safe, healthy and informed. Moving forward, this board calls on the University to ensure its communication efforts are streamlined and clear, aimed at minimizing student confusion, uncertainty and panic.
Housing issues: an especially uncertain time for international students
Liebowitz also urged students not to return to campus after March 25 and explained that the University “will allow some undergraduates, on a case-by-case basis, to remain on campus in the residence halls” with appropriate permission from the Department of Community Living. International students, individuals with on campus jobs, those with limited internet access at home and those for whom going home is not an option will be considered for extended housing on campus, among others. Students who wish to apply for extended housing must complete a form, which asks students to explain their reasons for staying in 600 characters or less. We appreciate that DCL wants to finalize housing arrangements quickly and efficiently, but 600 characters is simply not enough for many people to summarize their life circumstances.
According to DCL, students who submit the form will receive further instructions in the next few days and will learn whether their application was accepted. However, on March 11, Student Union President Simran Tatuskar ’21 sent an email to students saying, “Any student who wants to stay on campus can stay on campus,” a message that did not completely align with what Liebowitz had outlined. This board acknowledges that this is a complicated time and it is logistically difficult to make the situation flow smoothly, but for something as essential as the availability of housing for those who need it, all representatives of the University should be sharing a clear, consistent message. This is especially important for international students, many of whom are choosing to travel home out of fear that they will not be granted the extended housing they need.
Additionally, because Brandeis has an international undergraduate population of about 20%, offices on campus should provide more guidance to students whose homes are in places currently experiencing a high number of cases, including China, Japan, Italy and South Korea. With the uncertainty surrounding the new travel ban placed on foreign nationals arriving from Europe to the United States, many students are concerned about the implications such restrictions could have upon their return in the near future. This board encourages the University and the International Student and Scholars Office to reach out to international students to highlight their options if they choose to stay, to inform them of the effects of policies being implemented around the world and to address misconceptions about possible changes to their immigration status.
Expectations and requests for the administration
As it is one of the primary, lingering questions students face, this board asks that Brandeis set a date to make a decision about whether to hold Commencement. Many other universities are treating mid-April as a point to reevaluate their campus closures and assess whether they should ask students to return. We ask that the administration set April 17 as the date by which the community will know whether Commencement is taking place. This would alleviate some uncertainty and provide people a month to make travel arrangements. In general, we ask that the administration make decisions about the status of summer programming — such as Alumni Weekend and summer classes — at least one month before they are set to begin. We recognize that these are difficult and complex decisions that will take time to make, urging the University to balance thoughtful decision-making with keeping students informed as early as possible.
This board also asks the University to restore April 11 to 14 to their original status of non-instructional days, as they were previously part of Passover recess. Many students and faculty have already made plans for this time period that would conflict with online classes. If the University is concerned about a lack of instruction days, they could treat these days as “snow days,” or simply extend the semester by a few days, since the final exam schedule has been thrown into disarray regardless.
Additionally, we recognize that many students who rely on Federal Work Study may not be able to continue working because of this situation, and we ask that the University continue to pay FWS students for the hours they would have worked, as Amherst College has pledged to do. According to an announcement on the Federal Student Aid website about COVID-19, institutions are allowed under federal law to continue to make FWS payments “under certain limited circumstances to disaster-affected students who are unable to continue working.” This board urges the University to evaluate whether it meets these standards and if so, to pay FWS students for the time they would normally be scheduled to work to help alleviate the financial burden of this sudden change.
Expectations and requests for professors
This board requests that professors understand the stress this transition continues to cause students and be considerate when taking attendance, assigning work and grading assignments. We urge professors to adjust their assignment expectations, deadlines and grading policies in light of the upheaval students are facing — and will continue to face — this semester. Although the content of most courses will not change with the transition to online instruction, the structure, comfort level and cohesiveness of traditional in-person meetings will be profoundly affected. Additionally, the material taught in studio art, music, theater and laboratory courses, among others, will not be maintained in online instruction. Adjustments to these courses, necessary to accommodate online instruction, will affect content, and therefore the ability of professors to adequately and fairly grade student work.
Additionally, this board urges professors to consider changing the times and expectations of their class meetings to accommodate students who will be traveling to, and residing, in different time zones. Similarly, professors should recognize the last-minute change in the structure of spring break when taking attendance and scheduling class meetings during that time.
Finally, this board thanks everyone on campus who is doing their best to contend with this situation and to support each other in the coming months.