North Texas Daily

Students, faculty protest for remote learning options as COVID-19 pandemic continues

Students, faculty protest for remote learning options as COVID-19 pandemic continues

Students, faculty protest for remote learning options as COVID-19 pandemic continues
January 28
14:30 2022

Over 50 people gathered on the Union South Lawn Thursday afternoon to protest for the option to attend all classes remotely during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was hosted by a collective called the University of North Texas Student-Professor Alliance Against COVID-19 and attracted a crowd made up of students, faculty and local residents. Organizers handed out N95 face masks to fellow protestors, as well as to passers-by walking in and out of the Union. 

“Safe education is a right and it should not be limited by our public higher education institution that I do believe can do something about what’s going on,” said Kaylen Ruiz, co-organizer and psychology and political science double major.

 As the crowd opened the floor to speakers, attendees voiced concerns about the lack of social distancing policies in classrooms and the stress they felt having to take in-person classes. Multiple speakers cited fears of getting friends and family sick, some of whom are immunocompromised. Others expressed concerns about the omicron variant, which has been identified as a large driver of recent increased infections and hospitalizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by a University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center report

In an interview before the protest, President Neal Smatresk told the North Texas Daily that the basic tenet of the movement is “one that’s nearly possible to deliver on.” 

“That suggests we would have to be remote for as long as COVID is around,” Smatresk said. “If [COVID-19] goes endemic, that would be years.”

The president said offering every class online would not be feasible by making double the class sections for each course. Smatresk also said not every professor has the equipment needed for remote teaching, nor the desire to do so. 

Some faculty members disagree, like Anastasia Hodge, a senior undergraduate teaching assistant for the College of Business.

“[For] the students who are getting COVID, we have to create Zoom links and we have to record our lectures,” Hodge said. “However, that’s just complete hypocrisy because why can’t we provide that as a preventative measure rather than waiting until [students] get COVID to provide those Zoom links?”

Hodge said faculty are recording most of their lectures but many are not making them available to students until they contract COVID-19. Associate Professor Deb Armintor, also a member of the Denton City Council, advocated against this at the protest. She said she has been allowing students to participate in in-person classes virtually since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“There is no extra effort on my part,” Armintor said. “[…] Making your in-person class accessible so that students can participate 100 percent of the time online should be a requirement to keep our students safe.”

Smatresk also said “no evidence of bad things happening on campus” paired with no omicron-related hospitalizations of university members influenced the decision to keep classes in-person. The president also cited a concern for the mental health of students, specifically those in isolation.

“Our estimates are that one in four of our students could have mental health challenges right now,” Smatresk said. “Being with people, having access to people on campus, allows us to keep a safer climate for students.”

Ruiz herself isolated for a year and a half at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“I don’t think the mental health of isolation triumphs the mental health of those like Helen Etuk, who will get hospitalized and die if they catch COVID,” Ruiz said. 

Smatresk told the Daily that he did not currently see much benefit from meeting with student movement leaders because “their minds are made up” and he is unsure if rational dialogue can be had.

“I’m more than happy to talk to [Smatresk], if he ever wants to contact me, he can,” Ruiz said. “It’s super frustrating because I, as a student, have a lot of concerns for the student body.”

The protest is not the end for the movement, as Ruiz said she anticipates more protests and more dissemination of N95 face masks. 

“This isn’t a one-time occurrence, this is going to keep happening until [the administration] talks to me,” Ruiz said.

The push for online learning options is not restricted to just UNT, either. Co-organizer and integrative studies senior Hannah Larson, who started a petition for online options, said the Alliance has been in contact with other Texas universities like Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and Texas Woman’s University. 

A day after the protest in Denton, Texas A&M students are hosting a solidarity protest in College Station. 

“Watching what UNT is going through reminded me a lot of last semester and TAMU’s fight,” said Neo Koite, a wildlife and fisheries junior at A&M. “I want UNT to know that they are not alone and we are in this together.”

Featured image: Media arts senior Bec Trumble (left) and communications studies senior Sara Trakshel (right) stand outside the union with a sign that reads “give us a voice” on Jan. 27, 2022. Student protestors gathered to advocate for alternative options to in-person classes. Photo by Matt Iaia.

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Ileana Garnand

Ileana Garnand

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