Entering the school year, students and faculty alike were anxious for how the semester would look. How would the pandemic affect day-to-day campus operations, and could we return “safely” back to campus? In just five days, the question was answered when Chancellor Blank directed all undergraduate students to enter a lockdown after the astronomic increase of COVID-19 cases. Some combination of the University’s lack of testing, lack of foresight and expectation that our “restart” would be better than other schools that had already tried — and failed — to re-open led us to the question: What did you expect was going to happen?
Both Witte and Sellery residence halls were closed shortly thereafter, following another two hour notice to prepare for a two week lockdown. The first week of students returning to campus produced one of the craziest — yet highly expected — outcomes. In addition to the litany of other stressors faced by students, pandemic stressors as a result of the universities actions — or rather inactions — were not at all remedied. Students were expected to perform academically at the same level as any other semester, were expected to use the invasive Honorlock platform and were not offered a pass-fail option.
Let us first give credit where credit is due: The spring and fall commencements last year were rightly cancelled, and the cautious return to an in-person event this May is appropriate. Despite the emotional toll on seniors of not getting to walk like they may have envisioned, these decisions make sense in the interest of health and safety. However, the decision to advertise basketball tickets for March Madness in Indiana — a state with no mask mandate — while enforcing limits and restrictions on other crowds reeks of hypocrisy.
The inconsistency of policies is a reflection of the priorities of the university administration. Academic accomplishment at a leading, research-oriented university takes a backseat because ticket sales make far more money, even if it is at the expense of students’ health. Students have made insurmountable sacrifices in academic pursuit. They have fended off personal and social misfortunes, and the extreme physical tolls of regular screen time and vastly varying time zones, to name a few things. All this simply to stay afloat.
Yet it all comes undone when tickets are advertised and sold in order to fill the coffers. Those privileged enough to not have to think about sacrifices oblige by paying for tickets and acting irresponsibly, affecting those who wished no part in it at all. Despite some fair decisions, by virtue of selling tickets to basketball games, the university has actively aided and abetted selfish practices that have caused great pain to those simply watching from afar and wishing for this nightmare to end.
No Spring Break Burnout
In the fall, students suffered left and right, from experiencing lockdown in tightly packed dorm rooms, to packing their bags for quarantine housing to actually contracting COVID-19. On top of financial and food insecurity and even election-related stress, the push to work under business-as-usual truly took its toll, especially for students of color.
One University Health Services Associate Psychologist Dr. Corey Steele said that student mental health demand was “greater than ever.” Despite pleas from student representatives for a pass/fail option, the university carried on as normal.
After a semester of isolation, lockdown and immense pressure to keep up with schoolwork, students felt additional accumulative stress brought by COVID-19 this spring. Students could seldom find opportunities to connect in-person with classmates. Some lost loved ones to the coronavirus and others had no choice but to work in a completely different time zone.
Instead of addressing student grievances, the work piled on. It never stopped.
The university’s attempt to rectify the situation came too late into the semester. Officials did not decide to offer a spring semester special grading policy until April 5 — one month short of this exhausting year finally coming to an end.
But what changed between the fall and the spring? University officials cite the “cumulative impact” of COVID-19. However, the stakes were just as high in the fall, when students were burdened by the fear of falling ill with the virus, let alone a family member, friend or roommate.
Though the risk of travelling and spreading the virus was absolutely necessary to acknowledge this spring, so too were the ongoing struggles faced by students.
Holding a Mental Health & Wellbeing Summit is no help when students are spending hours upon hours online anyway. Neither are three “Mental Health Days,” the majority of which were held over the weekend.
Although the university extended the deadline to drop a class, their late notice about a new grading policy failed students, as did their disregard to offer proper time for students to rejuvenate amidst surviving a pandemic.
Student leaders shut out of financial relief plans
The university also chose not to take up students’ concerns when it came to their more material needs throughout this pandemic school year.
At the start of this semester, it was clear that students were struggling to keep up with rent and utilities. Concerned for their peers — and that federal aid coming through the university couldn’t go towards helping noncitizen students — the Associated Students of Madison aimed to divert their reserve funds into a COVID-19 Student Relief Fund. Ultimately, those funds were left on the table as the administration claimed it violated UW System policy against gifts to students. Rather than help ASM find a legal way to use that money to help struggling students, they stonewalled the effort and the good intentions behind it. While ASM spent months bringing amendments and probing loopholes to force the fund through, UW administrators rested on their legal argument while $2 million — money paid by students and rightfully controlled by their student government representatives — sat unused.
In response, ASM passed a well-deserved vote of No Confidence in Laurent Heller, vice-chancellor of Finance and Administration and the university’s pointman on the relief fund, because of his refusal to engage with their efforts. Heller responded last week by announcing his departure from the university.
At the same time that the university was holding $2 million in unused segregated fees hostage, they were once again forcing graduate students to pay even more of those same fees for the privilege of working at the university. In the form of mandatory fees, UW takes back around 10% of graduate students’ salaries — a practice that clearly amounts to wage theft. For years the Teaching Assistants Association has lobbied for an end to the fees for grad workers. This semester, as its members face more dire financial straits, the union organized to withhold their funds until their due date, in the hopes that the university might throw them a bone. No dice.
The university claims to care about student wellbeing. We are keen to believe them. But what we have seen more clearly this year is their contempt for any student-led effort to improve that wellbeing.
The continued battle for racial equity
Beyond the trials and tribulations of our campus, on April 20, a collective sigh of relief was felt — not only across campus but across the country — as guilty verdicts were announced during the Derek Chauvin case. Despite the murder of George Floyd being recorded and witnessed across the world, there was worry and anxiety over what the verdict would be that Tuesday afternoon.
That uneasiness, though, speaks volumes about our so-called justice system and who it truly serves. Sure, Chauvin was held accountable for his heinous actions; but, the system which initially allowed his murder still holds. During the course of the trial, police officers killed Daunte Wright, body camera footage of Adam Toledo’s shooting was released and countless others lost their lives to police brutality and gun violence.
Though this guilty verdict has brought a fleeting sense of peace, it does not escape us that thousands of incidents of police brutality go unrecorded and don’t even make it to court. As such, this rare conviction of Derek Chauvin does not negate the need to reconstruct the criminal justice system. Rather, it marks the need for continued activism and disruption. As countless law enforcement officials have gone on with impunity, the Chauvin trial marks a long-fought, yet continuing battle for racial equity — yet another beginning in the pursuit of justice. As students, it highlights that there is still much to reform and rebuild under the institutions in which we operate.
The Year in Review
Overall, the university administration has continuously demonstrated their lack of care for student’s mental health. Instead, they have proven to us that we are cash cows — bodies that just pay the bills and allow the university to keep the lights on until they can overcharge the next incoming class of freshmen.
But, this also has given campus a stronger sense of community: a common enemy to be united against. Students felt a sense of camaraderie as they waited in long lines at the beginning of the spring semester to get a COVID-19 spit test (drooling into a tube never has never felt so normal). We have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the Chauvin trial, and we’re all equally confused at the university’s conflicting rhetoric, from no spring break to encouragement for students to watch the men’s basketball team play in a state with no mask mandate.
Throughout it all, we have suffered through an awful year — a year filled with institutions failing to do their jobs to take care of the people they promised to and forcing individuals to place pressure for change and accountability.
Important questions remain: How will we take what we learned this year into the next year? How will we as students continue to keep other students safe when we go back to in-person classes, no longer plagued by an infectious disease but instead by the silent killers of food insecurity, sexual assault and mental health crises? This is the question we should be asking ourselves and our fellow students, and this is the question that will — hopefully — spark meaningful conversations with the University on how they treat their students as we move forward.