Professors react to UMass’ new student testing compliance

Students who live on campus, or visit, can have their Moodle and Zoom access taken away

McKenna+Premus+%2F+Daily+Collegian+

McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Sofi Shlepakov, Collegian Staff

The University of Massachusetts Amherst announced over email on Feb. 22 that students who live on campus or visit campus, who are not in compliance with the school’s asymptomatic COVID-19 testing guidelines, would be restricted from their Moodle and Zoom accounts.

Moodle and Zoom are two tools that are used by UMass professors to assign and receive work and meet synchronously. To many students these platforms are their classroom for the time being. By disconnecting this access, students would be unable to attend classes or complete assignments unless a professor gives them an alternative.

Professor of women, gender and sexuality studies Laura Briggs did not agree with the decision made by the school and sent an email to students in her classes addressing the new decision. She provided guest access to her classes’ Moodle page and Zoom in order for students to not get discouraged.

She expressed disappointment in the approach that the University took to address the community’s public health. “I thought as a university we could unite around a data-driven approach to helping all students get tested regularly,” Briggs said.

She also voiced her concerns about the “authoritarian response” that the administrators took which “essentially involves them coming into my [digital] classroom and yanking students out of it.”

A collaborative letter was written addressed to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy by professors of the women, gender and sexuality studies department, which includes Briggs, stating their concern over what a decision like this might do to students’ motivation.

The professors mentioned in this letter are: Associate Professor Angela Willey; Associate Professor Kirsten Leng; Professor Kiran Asher; Professor and Department Chair Banu Subramaniam; Associate Professor Miliann Kang; Senior Lecturer Laura Ciolkowski; Associate Professor Svati Shah; and Briggs.

As a group, the professors said they agree with the importance of asymptomatic testing, but that by cutting off student access to Moodle and Zoom it will interfere with the learning schedule and students’ education. The letter also noted a lack of communication between the school and professors.

“As far as we are aware (and certainly we are not), we were not consulted about this decision to use access to online courses as a threat against students who fail to comply with twice-weekly testing,” the letter said.

The professors suggested that students who are not complying with testing be restricted from attending in-person classes, instead of losing Moodle and Zoom access. The professors said they are “not interested” in access to their courses “becoming a stick to enforce compliance with anything.”

In that same letter they wrote, that in a time where people might be discouraged or depressed, it is important to help others and not discourage one another further. “The best any of us can do right now is throw them [students] a lifeline, not make their lives worse. Reading and studying can actually help get life back on track.”

“At any rate, whatever is going on, pushing students out of classes they can safely attend, no matter what their COVID or testing status, is not what educational institutions should be about,” the letter added.

Dr. Laura Balzer, an assistant professor for the School of Public Health and Health Sciences and part of the UMass COVID-19 response, leads the group that designed, implemented and maintains the COVID-19 Dashboard. She is also a member of the Public Health Response Team and provides recommendations to campus leadership.

Balzer’s role in this work stems from background and experience in HIV prevention and improving community health for the last 10 years. Citing this experience and her knowledge of disease prevention, she said that “these approaches” have failed with the HIV epidemic and abstinence-only education programs and that she does not believe it will help now.

She mentioned that the UMass community needs to have an “equal-footing partnership.” Rather than implementing the decision to lock students out, Balzer said there needs to be empathy, transparency and conversations which revolve around data.

“Health and well-being is more than just having a negative COVID-19 test result,” Balzer said.

The gender, women and sexuality studies professors concluded in their letter that they will educate students on the importance of asymptomatic testing, social distancing and wearing a mask.

“We will not be part of punishing those students who are unable or unwilling for whatever reason to comply with testing, but can still safely attend online classes,” they said.

Sofi Shlepakov can be reached at [email protected]