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EDITORIAL: We need a new normal

The University must implement policy to ensure the health and safety of our learning community in the midst of rising COVID-19 cases

<p>Instead of <a href="https://wina.com/news/064460-uva-community-letter-calls-positive-covid-tests-part-of-new-normal-upon-return-to-grounds/"><u>creating</u></a> a “new normal,” students have been forced to return the old one, despite our circumstances being fundamentally different.</p>

Instead of creating a “new normal,” students have been forced to return the old one, despite our circumstances being fundamentally different.

We have been here before. If you keep up with The Cavalier Daily’s coverage, then you know we are no stranger to covering the coronavirus. We had hoped our days of counting case numbers and crafting critical calls to action were behind us, but here we are. Both nationally and here in Charlottesville, we have seen a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases. But what has changed since our initial writing on this topic is the University’s reaction — or lack thereof — to rising case numbers. Where there used to be mask mandates and excused absences for those who missed class due to COVID-19, students are left to go to class sick or stay at home and risk falling behind in lectures and labs. It is the University’s responsibility to enact policy that prioritizes the health and safety of its students — but as it stands, the University is defaulting on this duty. Its failure to provide public health guidance that enables us to safely live and learn despite the continuing presence of the coronavirus has stripped many students of their ability to engage in the student experience. Instead of creating a “new normal,” students have been forced to return the old one, despite fundamentally different circumstances.

Early on in the pandemic, University administrators took a hands-on approach to quelling the spread of the coronavirus. However, by 2022, the University loosened up its COVID-19 restrictions — including mask mandates and requiring faculty and staff to be vaccinated — and discontinued its digital case tracker. Even here at The Cavalier Daily, we put a halt on our community coronavirus updates. But these decisions to revert back to normal operating procedures does not mean that things are actually back to normal. 

Cases are rising again. Only this time, there is no University-issued guidance outlining how students and professors should navigate this reality. Administrators haven't sent a single email regarding the uptick in cases, and many classes are carrying on just as they did before the pandemic. As a result, students are pressured to show up to classes even when they feel sick because the University ditched the pandemic-era policies that guaranteed students access to their education when they were isolating due to illness. This state of affairs is especially harmful to community members who are immunocompromised. By attempting to go about our lives just as we did before the coronavirus, we are leaving many students to pick between their health and their education — despite spending the past couple of years learning to build a reality where learning and safety can co-exist, even within the context of rising COVID-19 cases. 

The University must implement a framework that both addresses rising COVID-19 cases on Grounds, and shapes future class structures to be accommodating of our post-pandemic reality. This can look like a lot of different things — mandating recorded lectures, requiring professors to hold virtual office hours and laying the groundwork for generous make-up policies, specifically for isolated or quarantined students. Instead of forgetting all that we have learned since March 2020, we should leverage our past experiences to build a post-secondary education system that empowers students to prioritize their health, while still obtaining a world-class education. In short, we need a new normal.  

This is an equity issue. By remaining aware of the various ways in which the coronavirus continues to impact our lives, each student can be given the specific resources they need to be successful. As students, we do not have all the answers. But, quite frankly, it is the job of University administrators to run the University. Student welfare should not be an afterthought. There is no room for the University to ignore the current COVID-19 situation — especially when many in our community have no choice but to take it seriously.   

This is not a new or particularly unusual ask. Time and time again students have called for academic accommodations in the face of the pandemic. The University cannot claim to be great and good, but fail to care for the very stakeholders it exists to serve.   

Let us be clear, nothing we have said should be construed to devalue the importance of in-person classes and other engagements designed to build community here on Grounds. Several of us on this Editorial Board arrived at college navigating a virus-ridden, heavily restricted Grounds four years ago. We were forced to navigate our first year of college with little-to-no access to physical human interaction. This meant an unimaginably dull college experience. Coronavirus restrictions made us strangers to community, tradition and everything else that makes college fun. We want to emphasize that we want accommodations — not restrictions — for those affected by rising COVID-19 cases. We firmly believe that students must have access to the life-changing traditions and vivacious culture that form the University’s identity. This can only happen, however, when they are first supported by proactive public health policy that addresses how the coronavirus impacts classrooms. 

The health and safety of the faculty, staff and student population is in the hands of the University. As we see the coronavirus step back into the limelight — for what feels like the one-thousandth time — the University must take the necessary steps to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need to succeed. This year can be different than the three years prior — it can be one where students do not have to make the choice between a full college experience and a healthy, safe college experience. To make this a reality, however, we must first acknowledge that we cannot go back to the way things were before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus. We must find a way to balance academic excellence with individual health and safety. We must, to put it simply, find a way to create a new normal. 

The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors, their Senior Associates and an Opinion Columnist. The board can be reached at eb@cavalierdaily.com.

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