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Return to In-Person Classes Leaves Students Divided

Classes resumed at UST this week with a mix of in-person, hybrid and hyflex learning options just days after the Supreme Court blocked the Biden Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate that would have affected all UST employees.

With the Omicron variant still prevailing, UST students are conflicted about Covid-related safety concerns and precautions on campus. 

In a campus-wide email sent Jan. 18, UST President Richard Ludwick announced the start of the spring semester, indicating that in-person classes would not start online as some Texas universities chose, but still urging readers to get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks, and follow the University’s contact tracing and quarantine recommendation guidelines.

Those guidelines, however, are not mandatory, and students such as senior Spanish major Hannah Moran expressed concern about campus safety and the lack of online options for many classes in a series of posts on UST’s Stthom app.

Moran, who  suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder, a form of peripheral neuropathy disease that implements damage on one’s nerves in the arms and legs, is considered high-risk for Covid-19 complications and death.

“I can already picture being in a small classroom surrounded by unvaccinated and unmasked students. May the panic attacks start now,” Moran wrote.

“I am disabled and I feel unsafe. Yet despite the efforts I have put in, like getting in contact, complaining about the lack of protocol and regulation, it has served to be like nothing,” Moran said.

“It seems as though this just doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t make me feel loved or cared for at all.”

Senior psychology major Fernanda Balaguer wrote that she is also high risk and shares Moran’s concerns.

“It feels as if we’re catering more to conservative views rather than safety,” she wrote.

 “As someone with a condition that can kill me if I catch a virus, seeing as Omicron is extremely contagious, I feel like there is more that could have been done.”

“We’re not asking for that much,” Balaguer continued. “All we ask is that high- risk individuals are valued and treated as equal celts (sic) and not just like an afterthought.”

Senior political science major Rachel Harvey, who herself has a chronic illness, decided to take action after participating in the app discussion by contacting a specialist from the ADA department of the Department of Justice.

“Not saying or doing anything didn’t feel right,” she said, “and I feel that even if I was able to fix my situation, I wanted the other students to be able to have a path.”

Harvey said the ADA referred her to the Title III and the Rehabilitation Act, and was told that because virtual learning is now available, it is reasonable to request it be made available to high-risk students as an accommodation option for their classes.

“It’s considered reasonable because the technology is there, whereas before the technology was not there so it was never included in accommodations,” Harvey said.

 “This is a whole new playing field that we are in.”

UST Vice President for Marketing and Communications Jeff Olsen said UST faculty design courses to create the best learning experience possible, which includes choosing the best instructional mode for the class. As a result, he said, different classes offer different learning environments, not all of which are online.

“It’s really about the material that’s covered in the course, whether it’s conducive,  and also the faculty member’s ability to teach that material online versus in person,” Olsen said. 

Olsen said students who want to obtain a special accommodation or avoid in-person classes should see their academic advisor or a faculty member in their department and discuss switching to an online class.

“We absolutely take every single student into consideration, and care about every single student,” Olsen said. “And I will tell you that last semester we were able to accommodate every single student who came forward and said, ‘Hey I can’t do this or I need to change it here.’”

Olsen says that only about thirty percent of available courses this semester are returning to in-person learning. 

“You know, going completely virtual for a while caused a lot of mental health issues with students, a loss of connectedness in our community between some of the students.”

Some students the Independent interviewed said they much prefer in-person classes to virtual, and are glad to be back on campus.

“Online classes are a pentacle of hell,” said Chris Amaro, a freshman international business major whose classes are all in person this semester.

“Every time I’ve been [in an online class] I’ve learned nothing,” he said. “All of my brain’s energy is wrung out.” 

Lauren Reed, a senior theology major who moved close to UST this year specifically to attend class in-person, agreed. 

“Online, I will not pay attention in class,” she said. “I know that a lot of teachers require their students to keep their cameras turned on, but any chance that I have to turn my camera off, I will.”

Reed said she thinks people “should have the option for online,” but doesn’t believe starting the first weeks of the semester online–as some schools chose—is reflective of most students’ desired college experience.

Like Reed, freshman communication major Karman Khoice has also be awaiting a return to that traditional experience, but said she’s aware it comes with risks.

“It’s a weird thing, because it’s great in a lot of aspects so that students can experience college life. But it’s at the risk of a lot of people’s health,” Khoice said.

Senior psychology major Jeniffer Soto expressed a similar sense of ambiguity.

“I am indeed excited to be back in person because I personally learn better this way and want to be able to engage more in class,” Soto wrote to the Independent.

“However, I do think about other students and know that many are uncomfortable with this idea of being back in person.” 

Celt Independent staff writers Jennifer Thibodaux and Jailene Maldonado contributed to this story.

This story was updated to correct the name of Fernanda Balaguer. She was incorrectly identified as Fernanda Toscano in a previous version.

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