On Monday, Aug. 31, Western Michigan University students gathered outside the Administration Building to protest the university’s decision to hold in-person classes.
The decision to protest came after hearing the various problems other universities had with reopening, such as Central Michigan University and Notre Dame, and after a petition to move the fall semester completely online went nowhere with administrators.
“We have received zero response to this email campaign,” said Larkin Babbitt, organizer of the protest. “I’d like to point out that in the town halls this summer, the administration repeatedly stated that if students have concerns, the best solution is to contact them with these concerns. Clearly this is not a viable solution, so I organized Monday’s protest in the interest of finally being heard.”
Babbitt said she was also unhappy with the university’s Safe Return Plan as she believes it is a dangerous proposition when looking at the four pillars of the safe campus strategy which are to protect, monitor, test and isolate.
“Unfortunately, these four pillars are poorly and inadequately constructed,” Babbitt said. “Working backwards, coming to campus is the opposite of isolating. The current testing plan is woefully inadequate in its dismissal of asymptomatic students. On a college campus where, asymptomatic spreaders are the biggest problem, forcing (often-broke) students to pay $84 out-of-pocket for testing is a huge mistake. As far as monitoring, I am concerned that the new penalties associated with social interaction will actually just encourage lying about social interactions, which would render any contact tracing efforts completely ineffective.”
Protestors also expressed concerns about aspects of the reopening plan, such as the cost for testing, WMU’s revised code of conduct on penalizing people for not following protocols and the survey WMU had students fill out on their thoughts on in-person classes. This survey was sent to students in July.
“They could have the most comprehensive plan in the world but that doesn’t take into account the individual person,” Senior Tre Bryant said. “People as we are already seeing are gathering in large numbers, they’re out there partying, they’re not wearing masks and it would be horrible for the university to push that blame onto us as they are already doing, it’s not enough just to have guidelines they have to take that initiative they have to keep us off campus.”
Student Erin Emery believes despite the new rules, students will ignore them.
“I definitely think students are going to do what they want to do, they can do what they want because they are adults and they can make that decision,” Emery said. “I don’t think that’s right, we should be considering the community as a whole. I don’t think the pledge is going to stop them, I think the pledge is only going to make them more secretive on what they are doing because they don’t want to face the consequences.”
When the university said they were going to offer free COVID-19 testing, it was believed all tests would be free. It was later determined the first test would be free but additional non medically necessary tests would cost $84. Students showed frustration with this as well.
“I do not like that they backtracked on the free testing,” Student Samantha Fish said. “I went to go get tested when I moved on to campus and they told me that any subsequent testing would cost money and I know I am not in a great financial position to pay for constant testing that I would rather have.”
Provost for Academic Affairs Jennifer Bott later met with the protesters to listen to the protesters' demands, which she plans to share with her colleagues this week. She welcomed the opportunity to hear from students, but said she is confident in the Safe Return Plan.
“I look forward to sharing their perspectives with my colleagues and providing a response,” Bott said. “Many people have worked on our return plan, all with expertise in their respective fields in public health, health care, virtual course delivery, facilities management, etc. As with any important endeavor, we will refine it and make it better over time. But I do believe we have a strong plan and it’s our best opportunity to open safely.”