NASHVILLE, TN (TN Tribune)– As the Spring semester begins, graduate students at Vanderbilt University are calling on the administration to offer increased flexibility, virtual work and class options, and more robust equipment to protect against COVID-19 (e.g. KN95 masks) in the midst of the omicron surge. The petition, now signed by over 400 people, has received only a vague response from administrators that repeated familiar talking points while not addressing the petition’s central demand for hybrid options. Vanderbilt administration is currently working remotely. A follow-up rally to demand a response has been announced for noon on Wednesday, January 26, in front of Buttrick Hall.

Located in Davidson County, which is currently experiencing extremely high rates of COVID-19 infection, Vanderbilt University has refused to provide adequate protection and accommodations during this pandemic. The administration has forced students into a lose-lose situation: risk contracting and spreading covid or face the consequences of absences and additional work. Even supportive faculty are not allowed to offer hybrid classes.

“The situation is very tense for faculty right now. We have been told that we’re not allowed to offer a hybrid option for our students who request it. It feels wrong, especially when students are expressing a very reasonable need, which is clearly easy to accommodate. We’ve also been told that violating this policy is grounds for dismissal.” Dr. Lea Davis explains. In town halls, Vanderbilt administrators continue to claim their rigidness is due to their “deep commitment to in-person learning” and insist “We can’t have remote [learning] as a matter of policy.”

“Vanderbilt University’s response to COVID has continuously endangered the health of students, faculty, staff, and community members across campus. By prohibiting remote or hybrid classes while they themselves are working from home, they are acknowledging the danger posed by the omicron variant while making evident that they do not value the health and wellbeing of the community,” says fifth year biomedical engineering graduate student Kathleen Larson. She was among protestors who marched to deliver the petition to administrators Chancellor Diermeier, Provost Raver, and Dean Andre Christie-Mizell, only to be met with empty offices.

Following coverage of a rally around the petition by News Channel 5, Vanderbilt told the channel, “…we have taken a number of actions designed to continue in-person learning while making health and safety a priority.” But the experiences of students tell a different story. 

For example, Vanderbilt administration promised to provide three K95 masks to each graduate worker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that these masks should be single-use and used at most 5 times. However, Vanderbilt failed to achieve even that, as numerous departments have yet to receive masks.

Vanderbilt also told News Channel 5 that “omicron is a significantly less severe illness.” This kind of nonchalant attitude towards people’s health is insular, as their blanket approach disregards all individual circumstances. One current student is experiencing heart complications after being infected with COVID-19. Another experienced asthma complications. Still others are concerned with exposing immunocompromised loved ones at home. Vanderbilt’s policy strips faculty and students of autonomy and ability to protect themselves.

Learn more about the petition here.

Nashville, TN (TN Tribune)