The Yale chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, a student political group on campus, officially launched its COVID-19 action plan last Friday to an audience of over 50 students at a virtual kickoff event.
The plan, described in an online petition that has garnered over 200 signatures, demands that the University update financial aid packages and bolster student access to health insurance and mental health services “in light of the multiple, overlapping crises” facing students amid the pandemic.
YDSA organizers emphasized that the suite of three demands — accounting for COVID-19-related financial changes when calculating aid packages, expanding Yale Health insurance coverage to students living outside of the state of Connecticut and allowing students to schedule Yale Mental Health and Counseling appointments and answer basic background questions through the online MyChart portal — was drafted with a view to student input and potential “winnability.”
“What [YDSA is] doing is really important and something FGLI students never really have the courage to ask for,” said Karen Li ’23, who recently completed her tenure as president of the Yale FGLI Advocacy Movement. “Now that FGLI students are finding our footing and realizing that we do have power, we can make demands so that our time here can be spent enjoying college instead of worrying about finances all the time.”
Last September, YDSA members circulated a survey among networks of friends and classmates to solicit student input on the campaign. The proposed policies are also intended to align with an ongoing campaign promoted by the Democratic Socialists of America, a national political party which counts over 80,000 official members, to pressure the Biden administration to cancel student debt.
Within an already robust ecosystem of advocacy movements and organizations on campus, campaign co-chair Iman Jaroudi ’23 sees YDSA as another “channel for student mobilization.”
Yale YDSA’s campaign is coordinated with a coalition of seven partnering student organizations to broaden the base of support for the campaign. Those organizations include Disability Empowerment for Yale, the Endowment Justice Coalition, Students Unite Now, the Asian American Students Association, the Yale First-Gen and/or Low-income Advocacy Movement, the Yale Health Equity Initiative and Black Pre-Health Students at Yale.
“Even if we have some different goals, different tactics and different pieces of knowledge in our toolkit, when we work together we can achieve really wonderful results,” Jaroudi said.
YDSA’s first proposal demands that the Office of Financial Aid accept 2020 tax returns and other documents indicating significant changes to a student’s financial circumstances. Typically, students on financial aid submit household tax returns dating two years before their current application period. That means that, per the usual policy, students applying for aid in the 2021 academic year would usually report family earnings from 2019 — which, student advocates contend, may not account for significant income losses incurred during the pandemic.
However, according to Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Scott Wallace-Juedes, YDSA’s demand has already been met. Wallace-Juedes told the News that the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid is encouraging families impacted by the pandemic to submit 2020 tax returns and supplementary explanations of their individual circumstances when applying for aid for the upcoming year. The Financial Aid Committee has completed more than 100 COVID-19-related reviews of individual financial aid packages since the beginning of the academic year, according to Wallace-Juedes.
“We are glad the financial aid office is taking steps to address COVID-related hardships, but we also believe that this information should be more widely publicized to the student body — this important information about updates to the application process should be accessible, so that students know they can take advantage of these positive changes,” Jaroudi wrote to the News after learning about the Financial Aid Office’s COVID-19 response.
The second proposal, responding to gaps in Yale Health insurance coverage created by the pandemic, asks the University to allow undergraduate students enrolled remotely or on a leave of absence to purchase the domestic “Approved Academic Travel Rider” plan — a domestic short-term health coverage plan in place primarily for graduate students conducting research away from campus — and to subsidize its cost depending on the student’s financial circumstances.
Students who qualify for a $0 parent share financial aid package are also eligible for free Yale Hospitalization/Specialty Care coverage in addition to the basic health coverage available to all students. But students on this package who are taking leaves of absence are no longer eligible for University-subsidized health insurance, leaving some forced to choose between paying a steep $7,332 for two semesters of Hospitalization/Specialty Care coverage with the Yale Affiliate rates or going without health care coverage altogether.
In the long term, YDSA recommends that Yale transition to a Preferred Provider Organization option, which will allow students to use their Yale health care coverage through contracted providers regardless of enrollment location or status.
YDSA advocates and supporters are also calling upon the University to allow students to schedule Mental Health and Counseling appointments and answer basic intake questions via MyChart, the platform currently in use by Yale New Haven Health that allows users to schedule COVID-19 tests, set up appointments and request prescriptions. Unlike most other services provided by the Yale Health system, appointments with mental health counselors can only be made by phone — frequently resulting in multi-week wait times for intake appointments and even longer wait times to be matched with a provider.
“I frequently felt I had to pick between [my two student] jobs and my mental health care,” said Josh Diaz ’21, a representative of Students Unite Now who spoke during the virtual event. “This is why I am fighting for Yale to decrease wait times and provide better mental health care for students.”
Naomi D’Arbell Bobadilla ’22 added that she has missed many opportunities in her first three years at Yale due to extensive delays while scheduling mental health appointments.
“When I come back for my senior year, I want to come back to a campus that is rectifying these inequities, not letting them worsen,” D’Arbell Bobadilla said.
Yale Health Director Paul Genecin wrote in a previous statement to the News that Mental Health and Counseling is working to expand its use of scheduling options and will consider whether to include MyChart messaging and online requests for appointments in the coming year.
The Yale chapter of YDSA was chartered by the national organization last May, drawing in part from a coalition of students who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy in the 2020 presidential election. The chapter is currently composed of 76 members, YDSA COVID-19 campaign co-chair Caroline Reed ’24 indicated, who meet weekly for organizing and educational meetings.
“I think YDSA is really aimed to build student power and leverage and build organizing capacity to demand important and transformative things,” Jaroudi said.
Interested students can express support for the campaign by posting on social media and circulating the petition, Reed added, in order to build public pressure on Yale administrators. Organizers have not yet initiated contact with administrators, but they emphasized that the demands are “very urgent” and require “immediate attention.”
Virtual organizing requires a different set of strategies than in-person campaigning, Saket Malhotra ’23 acknowledged. Malhotra, a co-moderator of the Asian American Students Association, said that the prior success of the “Universal Pass/Fail” grading policy campaign last spring has helped shape virtual organizing tactics.
The Democratic Socialists of America was founded in 1982.
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