‘A half measure’: UC Berkeley students respond to campus’s spring plans

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Meghnath Dey /Staff
While some UC Berkeley classes, such as labs and graduate seminars, will remain in person, most will be online for the start of the spring semester in response to student concerns about COVID-19.

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UC Berkeley will begin the spring 2022 semester with two weeks of mostly remote classes before returning to in-person instruction Jan. 31.

While the announcement has assuaged some student concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 on campus following winter break, others, including ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert, say there is still much to be desired in campus’s handling of the situation.

“(Moving to remote instruction) was absolutely the right decision,” Weichert said. “I’m grateful that the campus finally made the decision to provide at least a standardized option for accessing classes remotely for the first two weeks.”

However, Weichert criticized campus’s decision to allow some in-person instruction and said that by doing so, campus is “underestimating the severity of the situation.”

According to Chancellor Carol Christ’s Jan. 7 email, some courses, including lab sections, studio and clinical courses and graduate seminars may still be taught in person during the two-week remote period, though instructors must provide alternate arrangements for students who cannot attend.

From Jan. 3 to Jan. 10, campus had 544 positive cases, with a 5.5% positivity rate, according to campus’s COVID-19 dashboard. This data, however, does not reflect at-home rapid COVID-19 tests.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Weichert said. “It is really a little disappointing to see a half measure that I think is aimed at pleasing everyone. But that shouldn’t be the priority right now. The priority for the campus should be protecting everyone.”

UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara were the last three of nine UC campuses with undergraduate students to announce a virtual start after winter break. Campus’s announcement came after students pushed for a remote start, including campus junior Xuejie Zhang, who created a petition urging campus to “stand up for students’ safety.”

The petition, which garnered more than 500 signatures, called for campus to offer at least two weeks of remote instruction and to switch courses with more than 50 students to a remote format until COVID-19 cases went back down.

“I’d really love to have in-person instruction,” Zhang said. “I was admitted during the pandemic and didn’t really have a chance to experience college. But I’m really concerned about our safety and health.”

Zhang added that she has a history of lung problems, which often flare up when she’s stressed. She often experiences symptoms that seem like COVID-19 — such as coughing and shortage of breath.

For Zhang, the decision to allow larger classes to remain in person starting Jan. 31 has led to concern and fear.

“(In lecture halls,) the seats are really near each other, and I’m really concerned, especially after winter break, when people have been traveling around,” Zhang said. “Lots of my friends have tested positive, and to be honest, I’m scared even now.”

Weichert hopes campus will implement a mandatory quarantine period of at least one week for students and a more comprehensive testing policy. Currently, only students who have received an approved exemption from the vaccine policy are required to submit a weekly test, according to the University Health Services, or UHS, website.

For students such as graduate student Julia Métraux, the high cost of symptomatic tests is an additional barrier to frequent testing.

Currently, a symptomatic COVID-19 test costs students who are not on campus’s health insurance plan $60 to $150 “depending on the type of test used.” Students may also be charged a $15 or $35 copay if they have a telehealth visit with a primary care or urgent care provider, respectively, according to the UHS website.

Métraux has systemic urticarial vasculitis, an autoimmune disorder, and, like Zhang, often experiences symptoms that are “very similar to COVID-19.” Métraux noted she is not on campus’s insurance plan because it does not cover her vasculitis care.

“It’s frustrating,” Métraux said. “I feel like I have to make the decision between getting a symptomatic test and be charged, or lie and say I’m not symptomatic and go to surveillance testing and not be charged. That shouldn’t be a thing that I have to mentally consider.”

Iris Kwok is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @iriskkwok.