SGA addresses COVID-19 restrictions and student employment during weekly meeting

UMass SGA sends list of demands to the administration, including greater meal accessibility and ending the barring of student employment off-campus

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Alex Genovese and Patrick Nie

The Student Government Association convened its weekly meeting on Wednesday night, tabling previous motions on the agenda to focus on the new COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the University of Massachusetts on Sunday.

In a letter to the University, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy raised the “operational posture of the campus” to “High Risk”. According to the letter, “students must stay in their residences, both on and off campus, except to get meals, undergo twice-weekly COVID testing or to attend medical appointments.”

The University also released information regarding student employment in response to reports that UMass had been contacting surrounding employers to send students home.

“Students employed off-campus are expected to follow the self-sequester directive to aid in reducing the spread of the virus,” said Brandi Hephner LaBanc, the vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, in an email to students. The University will also provide “a Student Employment Assistance Grant program to support students who are unable to work. Grant awards will be up to $300 per student,” according to the email.

Following officer reports, the SGA appointed Courtney Borstel, a freshman studying psychology, as a special assistant to the social justice and empowerment committee.

“Especially now, the student needs student body representation because there’s a lot going on on campus,” said Borstel.

She was confirmed for the position.

Next, the senate voted on a motion to sign on to the release of a statement supporting students during self-sequestration.

“This letter outlines the procedure and our role in being able to suspend or dissolve an RSO,” said President Sonya Epstein. “In order for us to suspend an RSO on the basis of violation of a University policy, there has to be proof and it has to be confirmed that they violated University policy [which] happens through the dean of students investigation.”

Senators did highlight the focus on Greek Life within the letter, with two explanations being presented. First, Epstein explained that Greek Life was what the SGA had gotten the most questions about. Second, Secretary of the Registry Andrew Abramson noted that “the way Greek life is structured is really confusing.”

The letter will be posted on SGA social media at a later date.

Following the discussion, the senate motioned to formally request that UMass “immediately provide meals through campus dining halls, without restriction of access, to any student,” according to the motion’s draft. Additionally, the motion read that the “University immediately increase support for students facing financial hardships and improve advertising of resources available to students.”

Students are currently only able to visit dining halls for grab-and-go meals, according to the University’s “high risk” operational posture.

“Yesterday at 2:14 p.m. I got an email from Pete Smith, who is the [director of communications] of Student Affairs and Campus Life […] with a draft of an email that was going to go out from Vice Chancellor LeBlanc about student employment and how its impacted with us going into high risk as our operational posture. We were given until 3 p.m. […] to respond with edits,” Epstein said.

“I asked about, in my response to the first draft, about students who are employed by UMass […] be compensated for those shifts if they were canceled and they were no longer able to work them because it was an in-person job. I did not get a response around those asks,” they added. “That’s extremely frustrating and not okay.”

The SGA added an amendment that “the University provide students an opportunity to donate their meal swipes and dining dollars to support the ‘No Student Goes Hungry’ initiative if they so choose to.”

The motion passed unanimously.

The SGA followed up with a third motion to demand that UMass “pay each on-campus student employee for the full amount of hours for which they were scheduled, for the full period of required self-sequestration.”“We just want to make sure that students aren’t becoming food insecure and housing insecure because of the expectation that they’ll go at least two weeks, if not more, with no income,” noted Secretary of University Policy Sara McKenna.

The motion passed unanimously.

Next, the SGA voted to demand that UMass “explain their ongoing communications with town governments and businesses in Amherst and surrounding towns.” Moreover, the SGA demanded that UMass “communicate to town governments and businesses in Amherst and surrounding towns that students may work at their place of off-campus employment during the period of self-sequestration,” and that UMass “modify policy and messaging to allow students with off-campus employment to work during the self-sequestration period.”

“The shift to high risk means that the University has made it clear that you’d be violating policy by attending your place of employment off campus,” explained McKenna. “Obviously, this puts students in a really impossible decision to have to choose between going to work and potentially being sanctioned for it or not going to work and having to grapple with those at least two weeks if not more of not earning any income.”

“It’s just not a place that students should be put in, especially in such an already financially insecure time,” she added.

The motion passed unanimously.

Finally, the SGA requested an “immediate cessation of or increase to the current one-package-per-week limits until sequestration has been lifted and further consultation with student leadership has been conducted.”

The motion was tabled after deciding to see if the University chooses to enforce the one package-per-week limit.

The senate then began debate on the three previous tabled motions.

The first motion was changing the student business investment board to an ad hoc board. The motion reads that the student business investment board will be “activated when there is a new student business application requested from the vice president of the SGA and deactivated with the acceptance or rejection of the application.”

Additionally, “The Board shall consist of one appointee from each student business as determined by a vote by the board of student businesses during one of their regular meetings and two (2) officers of the SGA appointed by the president.”

The motion was passed unanimously.

The second motion was to add to the Secretary of University Policy’s role to “[a]ttend or send a designee to the board of student businesses meetings once a month.”

“This one was also created in collaboration with the board of student businesses […] to ensure that they have a more consistent presence from the SGA,” said Epstein.

The motion was passed unanimously.

Finally, the senate debated the select committee on non-monetary compensation.

Instead of monetary compensation, the motion would explore “academic or alternative source credit” for ESO and SGA officers. At the end of the investigation or one academic year, the Committee would present their findings to the senate.

Senator Nicholas DeFranco noted in chat that “this might be a bad look on the SGA in the eyes of the student body as greedy for wanting compensation for choosing to become a senator, but at the same time, I do not know if they would mind if we received 1 credit per X amount of hours of work that we all put in. I think I am for this, but we need to tread lightly on this IMO.”

Debate arose as some senators argued that it was unnecessary to prioritize this over many other issues, including COVID-19 and racial justice. There was also debate over being a select committee versus a working group.

Senator Renos Zabounidis wrote in chat, “I see no reason for this to be a select committee. In the midst of a global pandemic, our focus should be working for students, not for ourselves. If a subset of this body really wants to be compensated, a working group seems more than sufficient. If there is no enthusiasm for the group to continue, I see no reason why we should keep it artificially afloat. Passing this motion, be it as a select committee or working group, will only make us look greedy.”

The motion failed and the senate adjourned.

Alex Genovese can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @alex_genovese1. Patrick Nie can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @patrickleinie.