Yale Daily News

Amid ongoing discussions about public health restrictions for the spring 2022 semester, the Yale College Council has called on administrators to increase transparency and student involvement in the policy-making process. 

On Jan. 6, the YCC met over Zoom with Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd and University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler. The meeting came after the YCC sent a letter to administrators on Dec. 23, asking that the University increase its communication to the student body regarding scheduling and policy changes, include student voices in the decision-making process and expand both University mental health and Safety Net resources. 

“Yale College students deserve representation on the COVID-19 Task Force and better resources to deal with the hardships COVID-19 decisions have brought upon us,” Pierson College Senator Viktor Kagan ’24, a member of the coalition that wrote to the administration, told the News. “We are seeking to build a healthier Yale, and to do that, we need to include students’ mental health, their physical health beyond COVID-19, and their overall welfare. We deserve more.” 

According to a YCC press release, administrators in the meeting agreed to participate in a COVID-19 policy town hall, create a committee of six YCC members that will regularly meet with Boyd and provide all students with acceptable masks. Administrators also told the YCC that the deadline to take a leave of absence would be extended from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8 and that the student housing relinquishment fee for students taking leaves of absence would be waived. 

But the administration did not meet all YCC demands. During the meeting, according to the press release, YCC representatives proposed break days throughout the semester to compensate for the shortened spring break, which administrators rejected. Administrators also would not commit to the council’s proposal that students have the option to take courses Credit/D/Fail if classes stay online for longer than expected or the proposal of retroactive Credit/D/Fail for the spring 2022 semester. 

During the meeting, YCC Chief of Staff Julia Sulkowski ’24 said, administrators also noted that the add/drop period would be extended to Feb. 8 and that libraries, labs, studios and practice rooms would be open for student use upon the start of the spring semester. Although YCC representatives pushed for residential college dining halls and gyms to be open during the period of remote instruction, these facilities will remain closed until further notice. 

The University has staggered updates about COVID-19 policies for the spring over the past several weeks, beginning with a Dec. 22 announcement that the start of the semester would be delayed by a week and the first two weeks of classes would be held online. On Jan. 4, Boyd announced in an email to students that a two-phase quarantine would be implemented for the first weeks of the semester, grab-and-go dining service would continue until further notice and students would be required to take COVID-19 tests before returning to campus. A Jan. 7 email from Spangler announced a halt on visitors and gatherings unapproved by public health officials and prohibited the use of cloth masks. 

As administrators set COVID-19 policies for the spring, the Omicron variant continues to spread globally and in New Haven. The number of Yale’s cases in the first week of 2022 surpassed the total cases in the first seven months of 2021, with 597 cases between Jan. 1 and Jan. 6, according to the University COVID-19 dashboard.  The University set a new record for single-day COVID-19 cases on Jan. 3, reporting 167 positive tests. 

“It is reflective of a national COVID spike,” Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund told the News. “The Omicron variant is considerably more infectious by all indications, so it’s almost like we’ve gone from a medium flu season to a severe flu season. In a severe flu season, a heck of a lot of people get the flu, and I think that a lot more people are going to get coronavirus now. It’s not going to be of any substantial consequence to vaccinated and boosted people. They might get the equivalent of a cold or mild flu, but they’re not likely to get seriously ill.” 

Evolving public health conditions have contributed to student uncertainty about what life on campus will look like in the spring semester. 

“It was great to know that administration had read our proposal and care about student opinion to meet with us over winter break,” Sulkowski told the News. “They are working so hard with constantly changing information and I really think that it was important that we as students voiced our concerns and worries about the upcoming semester. It is so scary to not know what lies ahead, so it was reaffirming to hear that Yale is working tirelessly to create and implement a plan.” 

The council’s Dec. 23 letter was drafted by a coalition of 14 YCC representatives, who assembled to formulate their demands after the announcement that the start of the spring semester would be delayed, the cowriters of the letter told the News in a collective statement. 

Residential college senators Kagan, Ryan Smith ’24, Abe Baker-Butler ’25, Momona Hadish ’25, Mahesh Agarwal ’24, Ted Shepherd ’25, Matthew Elmore Merritt ’25, Katia George ’25, Akua Agyemang ’24, Michael Ndubisi ’25, Dante Motley ’24 and Jerry Feng ’24 contributed to the letter, as did Sulkowski and Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee Director Jad Bataha ’24. Agarwal, Baker-Butler and Motley are staff writers for the News, while Feng is a producer on the News’s Podcast Desk. 

“We brainstormed with each other and got feedback and ideas from people in our residential colleges, thinking of all the things that have gone wrong in the past two years and what we can do to make them better,” the cowriters told the News in their statement. “We pride ourselves in our constituent service, so when our floormates, friends we eat in our dining halls with and people we see everyday complained to us, we decided to act.” 

The YCC letter called for “increased clarity and inclusion in the decision-making process,” specifically requesting the inclusion of one student representative on the University COVID-19 Task Force, as well as a town hall meeting with students and administrators to discuss COVID-19 policy as soon as possible. 

The letter also requested more information about COVID-19 policies for the spring semester, including the status of in-person classes, isolation housing and campus life in general as soon as it becomes available, as well as preliminary calendars for the semester reflecting different potential COVID-19 circumstances. The letter concluded with a request for expansions to the University’s mental health resources and Safety Net funds to help students navigate the emotional and financial burdens incurred by changes to daily life as a result of the pandemic. 

University spokesperson Karen Peart told the News that Chun, Boyd and Spangler agreed to meet with YCC representatives to “share information and learn more about students’ concerns.”

“We face an unprecedented, rapidly changing environment, and we understand the anxiety that can generate,” Peart wrote in an email to the News. “We are fortunate to work with public health advisors who have direct, real-time access to COVID-19 information. We use the advice of those experts not only to shape university policies but also to provide members of the Yale community with frequent, up-to-date, and reliable information.”

The YCC announced the results of the meeting on its social media accounts on Jan. 10. Administrators told YCC representatives that they planned to reevaluate the Safety Net resources currently available and hire more therapists in Yale Mental Health and Counseling. According to the press release, Chun said in the meeting that he would urge professors not to assign work due directly after spring break and to record lectures during the remote instruction period at the beginning of the semester. 

The YCC’s demands for increased student input in the policy-making process comes as both administrators and students prepare for the repopulation of campus for the spring semester. According to Boyd’s Jan. 4 email, students will be allowed to move in between Jan. 14 and Feb. 4 and will be required to quarantine in their residences until they receive a negative COVID-19 test. A campus-wide quarantine will remain in place until Feb. 7, during which students have been directed to avoid entering New Haven establishments, instead opting for delivery services or curbside pickup. 

Vermund explained that the University’s reentry plan was enforced as a way to “ease into the semester,” allowing students the time to get COVID-19 booster shots and receive at least two negative tests before returning to class in person. 

“I think the goal is to return to as normal as we can,” Vermund said. “It may be that Omicron has peaked by that point and is on the downturn. That’s what we’re expecting and hoping. So it may be that we have a relatively normal semester. That’s my hope, anyway.” 

Vermund also provided further context for the reentry plan, explaining that the beginning of the semester was delayed in hopes of bringing students back to campus in the downswing of the Omicron variant spike. Vermund added that the staggered arrival and weeks of online instruction were intended to weed out positive cases before returning to in-person instruction, explaining that it would be challenging to test everyone on the same day if all students returned at once. 

Forman emphasized that the local and international COVID-19 conditions are constantly evolving, and that much remains unknown about the Omicron variant. 

“We are operating on assumptions that we know a lot about this variant right now, and I don’t think that’s true,” Forman said. “It’s going to be at least four weeks before people have a real definitive grasp on what this means for everybody, and we should always have humility about what we know and what we don’t know. We’re learning as we go here.” 

The spring 2022 semester is currently scheduled to begin on Jan. 25. 

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.