Bwog staff investigates the concerns and impact of a petition started by international students to demand additional remote and hybrid course options. Daily Editor Henry Astor contributed to this report.

On June 4 and June 24 respectively, Columbia and Barnard announced that they will resume in-person teaching for the upcoming academic year for the first time since March 2020 with no fully virtual or hybrid option. At the start of August, a group of international students submitted a petition to challenge that decision, calling for the inclusion of hybrid or remote learning options in addition to the current in-person model for the next academic year, or at least for the Fall 2021 semester. The petition currently has 253 signers for both undergraduate and graduate schools. The full text of a version of the petition sent to the Mailman School of Public Health can be found here.

The petition group consists of both undergraduate and graduate students from Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Barnard College, the School of General Studies, and the Mailman School of Public Health. Initiated by a group of international students based in China, the petition has been circulating through WeChat, a Chinese messaging application, and has been gathering signatures through QQ Docs, a Chinese application similar to Google Docs. The same version of the petition was sent to each of the schools represented by the student petition group. So far, all of the petition’s signers are international students.

Concerns of the Petitioners

The petition details four concerns. In the first concern, petitioners argue that the risk of mass infection still remains even with the University’s vaccine mandate. To underscore the risk of infection, the section cites internal CDC communications, which state that vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 may spread COVID-19 at the same rate as unvaccinated people. This section further questioned the effectiveness of current vaccines in protecting against infection, citing a study by the Israel Ministry of Health which found the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine to decrease over time. The final portion of the section claims that WHO-approved vaccines in developing countries have low performance in preventing non-severe infection cases, though no source was cited. 

The second concern criticizes the school’s lack of protocol for students who become infected with the virus, including on how students will make up for missed class time if ordered to isolate and on whether the school’s insurance will cover students hospitalized due to COVID-19.  Both areas of concern have limited coverage on Columbia and Barnard’s websites. On Columbia’s COVID-19 resource site, under “Return to In-person Instruction,” it details that students who miss class due to quarantine “should work with their faculty instructor and/or academic advisor to ensure they are able to make up any missed class work.” It also details that COVID-19 testing or medical issues related to vaccination will be covered by insurance. However, it does not detail the insurance protocol if Columbia students have medical expenses due to being infected. On Barnard’s COVID-19 site, there is no mention of how students in quarantine will make up missed class work, but it does emphasize that Aetna, the default health insurance provider for Barnard students, does cover all COVID-related care. In alignment with the policy outlined on Columbia’s COVID-19 resource website, EVP Amy Hungerford told Bwog that faculty and affected students are expected to work together to facilitate a plan to make up coursework should a student need to miss class for an extended period of time due to COVID-19 exposure or infection, similarly to how faculty and students have in the past dealt with an excused student absence for any other reason.

The third concern addresses situations where students run the risk of becoming a close contact of someone who has the virus, arguing that the administration is obligated to prevent students from coming into contact with confirmed cases. The petition specifies that the administration should have a strict protocol protecting students from confirmed cases beyond existing quarantine measures, clarify how students in mandatory quarantine should continue their schooling after coming in close contact with a confirmed case, and issue a disinfection or ventilation plan to prevent transmission through contact with contaminated surfaces. 

The final concern details that with the pandemic, international students face exorbitant airline ticket prices and complex visa processes, making it difficult for them to return to campus for in-person schooling. 

As shown by the final concern, multiple areas of the petition reference difficult situations specific to international students. For example, the petition states that if an international student does become seriously ill, their family may also be unable to visit them as the U.S. government currently only allows entry for student visa holders from China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and India. In addition, Chinese nationals in particular can only return to China if they test negative for IgM antibodies, an antibody produced after contracting COVID-19. Thus, the petition infers that Chinese students’ return home may be jeopardized if they contract COVID-19 while engaging in in-person classes, though a recent update from the Chinese Embassy not included in the petition reveals that individuals who test positive for IgM antibodies can still return to China given that they submit vaccination proof. These antibodies are known to stay in the body for around two months after infection. 

Taking all four listed concerns into account, the group argues that by offering hybrid or remote options to students who wish to take them, the University can better address potential issues brought on by in-person learning and better protect students. The group also references other institutions that have adopted similar options, such as Boston University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and Columbia’s own Teachers College, urging the petitioned schools to do the same. The petition also cited that “the Engineering School” is offering remote or hybrid options, though Bwog could not find any hybrid or online only courses listed in the University course directory for Fall 2021.          

Contextualization of the Concerns

A Bwog fact-check concluded that the majority of the petition’s statements cohere with scientific evidence cited by the petition, but several claims require more context.

In particular, the petition group makes an uncited claim that “it is also well known that the vaccines available to the people in developing countries, though approved by the W.H.O., have low performance for first class protection, meaning that vaccinated students are still at high risk of getting infected, even though the risk of death and hospitalization is alleviated.” When asked for relevant proof by Bwog, the organizers provided a New England Journal of Medicine study on vaccine effectiveness against the Delta variant that was conducted in the United Kingdom and mentioned other studies that found reduced vaccine effectiveness in preventing infection from the Beta variant in Qatar. In Qatar, observational data indicate that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness against the Beta variant dropped by 20% as compared to results in clinical trials and in real-world results from the U.S and Israel. 

In addition, the petition group’s arguments regarding the risk of surface transmission do not take into account information that has already been released by the University. The petition demands a disinfection or ventilation plan to address surface transmission concerns, but ventilation systems have been improved to control airborne virus transmission at both Columbia and Barnard since last year. 

The University’s Response

Currently, the petition group has received a reply from Sandra Bernal Garcia, the Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Dean of Students for the Mailman School of Public Health. The reply stated that the Mailman administration will be adhering to the fully in-person model outlined by the Provost’s announcement on June 17 and that Columbia University’s Advisory Task Force will be reviewing new developments with the virus. The petition group also received a similar reply from the GSAS Office of the Dean reaffirming that classes will be in person and that hybrid or remote learning will not be an option. In a conversation with Bwog, EVP Hungerford said that she does not expect class recordings to go away, as many students found referring to the recordings to be useful and helpful to learning course content. While recordings are currently not mandated by University policy for Fall 2021, EVP Amy Hungerford predicts that individual professors may continue to record the classes of their own volition.  

As of August 13, the petition group has not received any other replies.

A Need For Clarity

While their goal of additional remote options has been rebuffed by the few replies received, petitioners still hoped for more administrative clarity. “Our petition outlines many areas of concern that school policies cannot cover,” stated an organizer from Mailman. “Our bottom line is that the school provides us with answers to these concerns, and convinces us that the school truly did take students’ health into consideration when they decided to reopen.” 

As of August 23, petitioners have decided to cease their efforts, no longer planning to send additional emails to the administration or collect additional signatures.

With a group of 253 signers, the petition represents a small fraction of the Columbia and Barnard population. Still, while the announcement of in-person schooling has mostly been met with excitement or relief, the petition sheds light on another side of student reactions, highlighting consequences international students must contemplate. The demand for online classes is also not exclusive to the petitioners. In a thread on Columbia’s Reddit page, r/columbia, several students express frustration with the lack of remote options due to health concerns. It’s difficult to discern if these commenters are international students; however, their concerns, juxtaposed with other students’ excitement over reuniting with campus, show that single policies can have dramatically different ramifications according to each student’s unique situation. It still remains unclear whether the school will address these students’ concerns on a case-by-case basis or if there will be broader administrative action. 

Update on 8/23/2021 11:20 PM:

After receiving unencouraging replies from the administration, petitioners have decided to cease their efforts. The article has been updated to include that development.

campus life via Columbia