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Saturday, February 24, 2024

ASM meets with Chancellor Blank in closed-door meeting, offers alterations to COVID-19 policy

Members of student government discussed alterations to the new campus COVID-19 policy with University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor in a closed-door meeting early Wednesday morning. 

Shared Governance Chair Reez Bailey and Chair Adrian Lampron presented the Associated Students of Madison’s suggested amendments included a “strong affirmation” of students’ rights to wear masks, providing air filters in classrooms with improper ventilation, the creation of a shared governance process for students to apply to drop a class or withdraw without penalty and for instructors to apply for COVID-19 accommodations.

According to Shared Governance Chair Reez Bailey, the alterations are important to make sure every member of the community feels protected as the campus mask mandate ends on March 12.

“We want to make sure every member of our campus continues to feel safe,” Bailey said in an interview with The Daily Cardinal. “Part of that is ensuring that even if that's just one professor or one student that does not feel safe, they are able to pursue their education and job here on campus in a way that makes them feel comfortable and accepted.” 

The chancellor was very respectful and responsive to ASM’s advocacy, offering a compromise to every request, Bailey said.

“We were really happy to get this meeting, and I think the fact that the chancellor was willing to sit down and meet with us face-to-face signaled how she was willing to listen and hear our advocacy,” he said. 

This meeting comes a week after UW-Madison’s English Department voted to request an extension to the mask mandate on campus. 

“Masks help mitigate that risk. We urge you to ... continue to mandate wearing masks indoors until such time as the (CDC) recommends stopping or campus has put measures in place allowing individual instructors/programs to require masks in their classrooms,” Miranda Alksnis, an instructor for freshman composition, tweeted on Feb. 25.

A few ASM leaders attended a meeting last week with faculty and staff to coordinate safety goals and strategies, and they have been in contact with United Faculty and Academic Staff (UFAS) throughout the pandemic, Lampron said. 

ASM also conversed with leaders of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), ACLU, UW BIPOC Coalition, Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE-UW) and other stakeholders on campus to gather information for their COVID-19 policy suggestions. 

“We always had a good working relationship with TAA and that form of instructor advocacy,” said Bailey. “Although we had not been in as close coordination with faculty, I feel very confident with our advocacy and outreach to the student body and student structures.”

In response to ASM’s first requested alteration, an affirmation of students’ right to wear a mask at any time without academic consequence, the chancellor told ASM that if any students experience issues with professors, they should report it. 

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The second alteration asked the university to establish a shared governance process for professors, TAs, lecturers and other instructors to apply for COVID-19 accommodations, including a mask mandate in their classrooms. Blank said that while professors can ask their students to mask, they ultimately cannot implement mandates. A meeting recap provided by ASM stated that she clarified that accommodation requests are also still available, but no requests have been filed since the mask mandate removal announcement. 

The university had 40 accommodation requests in the fall and 20 in the spring, although it is unclear whether faculty, TAs or instructors filed them. The meeting recap stated that most of these applications were approved by the university, but that individuals may not have received the exact accommodation listed on the initial request. 

Chancellor Blank also referenced ASM’s third alteration, stating that students can either withdraw for mental or physical health issues or use the medical withdrawal process, but the university cannot make this a shared government process for privacy reasons. There is also a graduated tuition refund if students choose to medically withdraw.

ASM’s final request for the university to purchase physical air filters for all classrooms was rejected. Other schools have tried air filters and found that they had no major impact in large classrooms, so the university will not purchase them, Blank said. 

According to Bailey, the meeting with Blank and Reesor was very productive and each point was thoroughly discussed and rebutted, resulting in a good compromise coming out on either end. 

He stated that he is sure that the majority of students will support the alterations, and they should “watch their emails” for information about the COVID-19 mask mandate policy the Friday before spring break. 

“I feel confident that most students would see these policy suggestions that we brought forward as reasonable,” Bailey said. “We’re not asking for the mandate to be reinstated, but we’re asking for more flexibility around individuals who have preexisting conditions and safety concerns.” 

This article was updated at 5:15 p.m. on Thursday to reflect that ASM did work with faculty and UFAS to coordinate COVID-19 strategies. 

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