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‘Students do not have the agency that they deserve right now’: University distributes survey seeking student perspectives on Fall 2020

The survey proposes three options and suggests several “community-building” activities

Students have until May 18 to provide their responses to the survey, and results will be released to the public.
Students have until May 18 to provide their responses to the survey, and results will be released to the public.

The recent creation of the Fall 2020 Committee has left students anxiously anticipating when, how and if they will return to Grounds for the fall semester. To guide this committee in making decisions, Dean of Students Allen Groves sent an email last Sunday inviting rising second, third and fourth-year students to participate in a survey regarding potential proposals for the fall.

“The biggest thing that we wanted to really try to gain from this survey is agency,” said Ja’Mel Reed, a third-year College student who serves as the sole student representative on the committee. “Students do not have the agency that they deserve right now and by administering this survey we want every single student to feel like their words are being heard by this committee.”

The survey asks students to provide responses — indicating the degree to which they agree or disagree with the potential to adapt and the likelihood they would enroll for Fall 2020 — for three different scenarios for the fall semester, the first of which entails splitting the semester into two seven-week modules. In this proposal, “intensive” classes would take place during one of the seven week periods, while other classes would last for the entirety of the semester. According to the survey, the online format of these intensive courses would allow other classes to take place in-person.

The second proposal suggests pushing the semester back by one month — an option which could shorten the length of fall break, winter break or spring break or end up changing the end date of the academic year. The third proposition keeps the semester dates the same, but requires that students take courses online to start, with potential to gradually transition to in-person classes. 

The survey also asks if students would be prepared to take classes up until 10 p.m. at night and on weekends in order to resume in-person classes. It also proposes several community-building activities, including a weekly speaker series and offering workshops to students.

Of the three options for the fall semester that were included, Reed said that he would prefer any scenario that allows students to return to Grounds, regardless of any social distancing or other requirements that might mean. 

It is not yet clear whether students will be able to return to Charlottesville in the fall, however. Reed noted that the committee is subject to the decisions of health officials, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and President Donald Trump.

In the event that in-person classes do not resume, Reed specified several improvements he would like to see made to online learning. Though he said that for the most part, professors handled the transition to remote learning to the best of their abilities, he would like to see more inclusion of students who have to work while at home in order to help support their families.

Reed also emphasized the opportunity for both professors and the University to innovate given this unique situation. 

“This is a great learning moment for professors and the University to really sit down rethink the way it teaches and educates individuals and the accessibility that comes with online learning,” Reed said. “Professors have a unique privilege in this situation to create a groundbreaking learning environment for students — all students.”

Reed, the incoming co-chair of Housing and Residence Life, brings with him knowledge from his work as a Resident Advisor, including familiarity with the University’s resources and interactions with residents of a wide-range of backgrounds.

“We are fortunate to have Ja’Mel Reed as a student representative,” said Brian Coy, assistant vice president for communications and University spokesperson. “He is doing an exceptional job representing student voices.”

Student Council President Ellen Yates, a third-year College student, praised Reed’s diligence as a member of the University community, but said that it was insufficient for just one student to serve on a committee whose recommendations will have a significant impact on the lives of students. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had differing impacts on the many different students who attend U.Va. and it is essential that there are a multitude of perspectives and experiences represented when these important decisions are being made,” Yates said. “It is absolutely imperative that the voices of diverse members of faculty and staff — including contracted workers — are included in these conversations.”

Specifically, Yates noted that the committee should include representation from the graduate student population, marginalized groups and student workers beyond Housing and Residence Life. 

Reed acknowledged that more student involvement in important decisions is helpful and said that even though he is trying his best, he is not and cannot be representative of everyone. For that reason, he emphasized that he would love for students to reach out to him with questions, as well as provide their perspective by responding to the survey.

Reed also noted that he thinks the committee has made an effort to seek out student perspectives. 

“[They] want to know everything students are thinking about the situation — all students, not just students who are on financial aid or students who are legacies — students from all walks of life,” Reed said. “That has been really welcoming.”

The decision to receive student input comes after some students voiced that they were not adequately consulted when the University enacted its revised grading policy for the semester. The new system implemented CR/GC/NC with the ability to opt-in for letter grades, and students were required to opt-in for grades by April 28 — the last day of classes, before they had taken final exams and received their final grades.

The Fall 2020 Committee will also be considering potential changes to tuition among other efforts to mitigate financial losses. Coy said the committee has not decided on any changes to tuition, but noted that it is one of many options in consideration as the group works to determine what the fall semester is going to look like.

Reed noted that he was not sure of the cost of online learning itself, but said that he’d like to see tuition lowered to make education accessible to all students, especially those who have to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that the committee is also open to considering this. 

“I think that the committee is not averse to having that discussion [about lowering tuition],” Reed said. “I'm really excited to see how the committee takes student input when it comes to tuition.”

Yates also noted that she was in support of lowering tuition and emphasized that while the University is suffering financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, so are students and their families.

“The way to show solidarity with students and the broader U.Va. community is not to raise tuition,” Yates said. “The financial stress the University is facing should not be passed on to students.”

Moving forward, Yates noted that she would like to see administrators take into account the 12 demands listed in the recent petition created by student activists, which Student Council endorsed.

The Fall 2020 Committee has been split into subgroups charged with smaller tasks. They aim to provide University President Jim Ryan and his senior leadership team with the information needed to make a decision about the fall semester by mid-June. 

Students have until May 18 to provide their responses to the survey, and results will be released to the public.