Is the UC Berkeley COVID-19 response enough?

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On Jan. 25, 2022, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced to the campus community the return to in-person instruction as the omicron variant began to decline. My name is Leonardo Gonzalez, and I’m a first-generation and low-income student attending UC Berkeley and studying political science. Students across the campus are both eager and nervous to return to in-person learning. I myself really benefit from in-person classes and being able to physically participate in discussions without the zoom challenges. 

Many students, myself included, feel excited to attend classes in person when attendance is rather manageable with 100 students or less. However, when lectures have more than 150 students, it becomes rather difficult and uncomfortable knowing there are that many students in one lecture hall. When rooms in Wheeler Hall are built without windows to provide much-needed ventilation it begs the question, “Am I safe in this room?” 

Campus policy requires the use of face coverings to be worn inside campus buildings, and students are highly encouraged to pick up and wear surgical and N95 masks. Despite these efforts, students inside campus buildings such as the Haas School of Business make it undoubtedly clear that masks are not currently enforced beyond email reminders and posters throughout campus. Students and faculty are notably seen without face coverings within Haas buildings, classrooms and the library. Library personnel in the business library have taken matters into their own hands, requiring students to show their Cal 1 Card or other forms of identification in order to remain in the library. Supervisors of the library periodically do mask compliance checks to ensure students are keeping their masks on during their visit to the library. Students who are caught not complying with face coverings are asked to immediately leave the library. This type of enforcement encourages students to wear masks in order to utilize services and spaces in the library. 

Students like myself who are low-income and must be employed during their time at UC Berkeley are most impacted regarding mask compliance. If I were exposed to COVID-19 during the semester, I would be forced to miss work, and as a result, lose income I need to sustain my life in Berkeley. Additionally, immunocompromised students are also impacted the most, since they must make decisions whether to attend class and face possible exposure or remain remote at home and risk being dropped from their classes. Professors across campus have shared similar concerns regarding returning to in-person instruction with lectures exceeding 150 students and reaching about 750 students per lecture hall. 

Personally, I am very excited to return to campus — utilizing the libraries in person to meet other students in discussions reminds me of the once “normal” life we all have come to miss. However, I also have realized how uncomfortable I feel in lectures being forced to be in-person without any option for vulnerable students to watch recordings or attend a virtual lecture. Many professors have taken it upon themselves to offer these options and make them readily available to students without any penalization toward student grades. However, I have learned there are some professors who have chosen not to provide any form of alternative to attending lectures as they force students to be in person or experience retaliation toward their grades. 

Ultimately, it is clear that UC Berkeley administrative leadership has much work to do regarding its response to COVID-19 and the many challenges it creates surrounding in-person instruction. My take? Require all professors to offer a hybrid or online option for students to attend lectures and work with graduate student instructors to incorporate COVID-19 conscious attendance options. Ensure clear communication between students and staff and work with the ASUC to share resources and information regarding COVID-19 and new policies. 

Lastly, hire student employees and dispatch them across campus to help enforce the wearing of face coverings in all buildings on campus. Without these proper steps taken, students, staff, faculty and community members alike are left at risk and without answers as in-person instruction continues to develop.

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