When the University announced that classes would be in person for the fall semester, it was a cause of celebration for many students as it signaled the return of normalcy on campus. But for many international students facing visa and travel restrictions, it was a cause of academic uncertainty.
On July 2, Dean of the College in Arts, Sciences, & Engineering Jeffrey Runner sent an email to the UR student body announcing plans for the 2021-2022 academic year and outlined COVID-19 guidelines for academic and student affairs on campus.
“The specific plans and policies for instruction, activities, and operations in the 2021–22 academic year will be updated regularly over the next two months,” Runner wrote in the email. “These will be informed by and subject to change based on information from the University’s medical experts, the current state of COVID-19 on campus, any additional state and federal guidelines, as well as the commitment to the University community’s health and safety.”
The main highlight of the plan was that in-person classes and UR traditions like Yellowjacket Weekend would return for the fall semester.
To address student concerns about not being able to make it to campus on time for in-person classes, junior Alina Fang published a petition on Aug. 11 on the SA Impact website for international students to continue the hybrid learning model into the fall. At the time of publication, 284 students signed the petition.
Some of the main points that Fang highlighted in the petition involved allowing “more flexible policies for students to study remotely” as well as “ensuring a safe learning environment for international students.” All of these stemmed from the international students’ concerns of being infected by the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant and the challenges posed by visa and travel restrictions.
The petition came about after UR Chinese students in a group chat discussed their options for the fall semester and Fang saw that many were concerned about the late arrival option that the University had given them, and were considering a gap year or a gap semester.
“Honestly the best result would be if we can get the hybrid for all students, if not, [for] students with […] an issue of returning back,” Fang said. “So like in the case where students really have the issue, I hope the school could give us a full hybrid for the semester […] If not for everyone, then for students who are really in need [of it]. Or students who can’t book a ticket because it’s too expensive. There are many different reasons. […] I just hope the school could be more […] humane and understand students who really need this, and they don’t want to delay their graduation.”
Since then, the petition has been reviewed by Runner and the UR Students’ Association (SA) according to junior and SA President Sabeet Kazmi. Fang said that prior to the petition’s publication, she reached out to Kazmi and had discussed what to do regarding their concerns.
According to Kazmi, petitions typically go through a process of deliberation once it reaches 250 signatures. In the case of Fang’s petition, Kazmi said he and his team of SA members, such as juniors SA Vice President Rusama Haque and Speaker of the Senate Matt Kiel, met with Dean Runner to discuss the petition. In addition, Kazmi said the SA team had “conversations with multiple professors,” which were ultimately met with hesitancy and reluctance to a hybrid learning environment this fall.
In the end, Kazmi said the school was reluctant to change the policy as “[the University] values the residential college experience quite a bit because they’ve already made accommodations such that all professors are only ready to do in-person classes.”
“The professors who are currently doing sort of that hybrid model at this point, although they are prepared to move to like an online virtual setting, it is both the preference of the professor and a significant majority of the students and also a significant majority of the administrators that we keep the school as in-person as possible,” Kazmi said.
Meanwhile, Kazmi said SA and the administration, such as the International Services Office (ISO) and the Office of Residential Life and Housing Services (ResLife), were working on plans and policies to accommodate first-year students and sophomores who will be on campus before Nov. 7.
“The Nov. 7 deadline to arrive on campus, for in-person classes beginning Nov. 8, was determined in consultation with the Office of Academic Affairs, International Services Office, ResLife, Dining Services, Dean’s Office, and College Center for Advising Services,” Director of International Student Engagement and Associate Director of Advising Services Molly Morrison said. “Typically, students need to arrive within the first two weeks of classes. An exception was made this year due to the extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic for students experiencing visa delays or severe travel disruptions.”
For students who are unable to arrive on campus by Nov. 7, they will have to opt for a Leave of Absence (LoA) and take either a gap semester or a gap year. Morrison and her team are working closely with students who request an LoA.
The University’s Office of Global and Community Relations is working with international first-year students and sophomores who have not been on campus yet and are facing challenges in getting a US F-1 student visa. According to Morrison, after she refers students to that department, the office coordinates with Congressman Rep. Joe Morelle’s office “to inquire with the US Embassy on the students’ behalf to help expedite/communicate the need for an emergency visa.”
Meanwhile, Executive Director of Residential Life and Housing Services Laurel Contomanolis said the office was “trying to get students in as efficiently as [they] possibly can.”
“It’s one of those situations where people are not coming in groups, they’re coming one here and one there,” Contomanolis said. “So [we are] trying to come up with a process that [gets] students in, into their rooms and ready to go, as soon as we possibly can.”
In regards to students with late arrivals, Contomanolis said the University will accommodate a reduction in housing costs for students arriving later than 3-4 weeks after the start of the semester.
“What we will do is we’ll recalculate from their arrival date to the end of the semester so that they will see a change, a reduction in their housing costs,” Contomanolis said. “Adjustments will be made […] not for the first couple of weeks, but after that, they’ll be prorated.”
Although the petition and other student efforts to reinstate a hybrid-learning model for the petition have not proven successful, it helped bring the issue to light. While Fang and other international students have opted for a gap semester or a gap year, most international students will be arriving before Nov. 7 for an in-person semester.
“Many students wished that they would have contact with some of the local universities and just do it similar to what they did at the beginning of the pandemic,” Fang said. “So like […] cooperating with Chinese universities and then sending us there […] for us to have a more realistic college experience. That’s asking for too much, honestly, but I think that [the University] hasn’t done too much for us. I can’t even imagine what they can do, you know? What can they do?”