‘The department has chosen to pursue a reopening plan—decided upon in April 2021 and not revisited since—that goes against the wishes of the student body and common-sense health concerns.’
Hunter College has built its reputation on dedication to social justice, with a stated mission of inclusivity, accessibility, and community-building through dialogue with students. However, the recent COVID policy implemented by the Urban Policy and Planning program within Hunter College has failed to realize these ambitions. Despite a pandemic made more unmanageable by variations and mutations, and students’ valid health concerns, the department has chosen to pursue a reopening plan—decided upon in April 2021 and not revisited since—that goes against the wishes of the student body and common-sense health concerns. The Urban Policy and Planning department is the sole department in Hunter with no hybrid or virtual options.
On the school’s website, department head Professor Joseph Viteritti states that Hunter College Urban Planning and Policy students are “committed to making cities better places to live for all people, especially those marginalized by poverty or discrimination.” The proclamation is true. The students in the Urban Policy and Planning department are deeply committed to advocating for the community’s rights, including the right to a safe and healthy learning environment. However, by refusing to adopt a flexible approach and not permitting students to influence policy that impacts them, the department has turned its back on its own mission.
The first week of September, the Graduate Urban Policy and Planning Association (GUPPA) hosted a town hall to allow students to vent their frustrations at the department’s lack of transparency surrounding the COVID policy on campus. Students specifically noted the absence of an online option in the case someone contracts COVID, the lack of a vaccination requirement for those entering the building, the unwillingness of the department to make adjustments given the spread of the highly contractible Delta variant, and, most importantly, the department’s disregard for student’s fears and anxieties, which have impacted their ability to focus during class sessions.
The town hall was held after the first day of class and offered little to no accommodation for students’ concerns and outrage at the mishandling of the campus reopening. Rather than working to directly involve students and incorporate their concerns into the campus reopening plan, the department representatives simply reiterated that the procedures decided upon in April left no room for change or potential alternatives.
The department’s policy has already proven contentious. In one classroom, students apprehensively gathered for their first day of class, most of them have taken serious precautions for well over a year. When they got to class, they were greeted by a professor unwilling to wear a mask. After students politely requested he keep it on, he declined, stating that the mask mandate didn’t apply to professors during lectures. When students shared this specific scenario during the town hall, the department was unmoved by their claims. They responded simply that students should address the professor directly (which they clearly stated they had already done) but, due to their policy, they could not require masks for professors.
Students’ lives have all been impacted by the virus, with marginalized and vulnerable students most heavily impacted. Many live with or take care of immunocompromised people. Some work in public-facing positions and have little control over the people they come in contact with every day and fear potential spread to their classmates. These are some of the concerns that were articulated during the meeting, with many students claiming they would be forced to drop out of the program if their safety was not more seriously considered. In response, one of the department representatives blamed their anxieties on “misinformation.”
It’s not misinformation that has students concerned, but rather the complete lack of information. The department refused to provide answers to students’ questions, questions with which the majority of the country and college campuses across the country must contend. At a time when corporations have decided it’s safer to continue working from home, and even fully vaccinated people are second-guessing gathering indoors, the department has decided it is unwilling to adapt to change.
It’s precisely because the university did provide us with the knowledge necessary to implement community-inclusive and effective policies that we are frustrated by the department’s lack of regard for our well-being. In our policy lessons, we have been taught that important decisions should not be made without community input. When a student stated exactly that at the town hall, one of the department heads responded, “a school is not a community.” Beyond being frustrated, students are now disillusioned with a department they believed shared their dedication to community betterment and inclusivity.
As a department committed to helping create the policymakers and planners of tomorrow, we hold the faculty to the same standards as we would leaders in the fields graduating students are entering into. If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that we cannot be in a situation where everyone is thinking of themselves, but we must work together to protect those who may be most at risk.
Miranda Bellizia, Cara Corrigan, and Jennifer Hendricks are students in Hunter College’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy.
A spokesperson for Hunter College responded with the following statement:
“Hunter College is following all the protocols and guidance from CUNY, the City, and the State, and the administration consulted with faculty, staff, student leaders, CUNY officials, public health experts, and Hunter’s Focus on Fall Committee, in order to ensure a safe environment for our students to learn and our faculty and staff to teach and work. We continue to consult with health experts and the campus community as the semester progresses and, as always, the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff remain our top priority.”