Community protests UVM’s reopening plan, criticizes off-campus parties and lack of clarity from admin

Burlington+City+Councilor+Zoraya+Hightower+speaks++outside+Waterman+Building+at+a+protest+against+UVM%27s+reopening+plan+Friday%2C+Aug.+14.

Maryann Makosiej/The Vermont Cynic

Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower speaks outside Waterman Building at a protest against UVM's reopening plan Friday, Aug. 14.

On the same day that some UVM students returned to campus in preparation for the fall semester, roughly 30 people stood outside UVM’s Waterman building to protest the school’s plans to reopen.

Organized by UVM staff, alumni, students and Burlington City Councilors, many speakers expressed dismay at the perceived lack of transparency surrounding the decision for students to physically come back to campus. 

City councilors in attendance included Jane Stromberg, Jack Hanson, Ali Dieng, Zoraya Hightower and Max Tracy. Students and professors gathered outside as well. All attendees wore masks. 

“When I talk about putting people before profit, this is literally exactly what I mean,” Stromberg said. “Not a single life should be lost because students don’t have a choice about whether to be physically back on campus.”

However, according to a July 2 email from Provost Patricia Prelock, UVM’s reopening plan includes a stay-at-home option where students are able to choose not to return to Burlington and take all classes remotely or online. Those that did not elect the stay-at-home option have the possibility of attending in-person classes. 

Cobalt Tolbert, a student at UVM and community organizer, questioned the utility of requiring students to sign the Green and Gold Promise, a contract to follow, “all social distancing and health and safety protocols, including regular mandatory COVID-19 testing and health screening checks”, according to the UVM website. 

“Essentially the administration, by putting forth their plan, is putting all the emphasis on students,” Tolbert said. “Students are going to socialize no matter what Green and Gold promise you sign.”

Other speakers expressed dismay at sightings of off-campus student parties and questioned the perceived lack of direction in handling large congregations. 

No protocol for reporting off-campus social gatherings that violate COVID protocols is listed on the UVM website or Burlington Police Department. Lacy Smith, the Burlington Police Department Community Affairs Liaison and UVM Police Chief Timothy Bilodeau could not be reached for comment.

Stop the parties, wear a mask, and get tested.”

— City Councilor Ali Dieng

“These parties need to stop. You work in the school, in multiple businesses, provide child care for families that are working,” City Councilor Ali Dieng said. “Stop the parties, wear a mask, and get tested.”

Some UVM faculty expressed worry at the possibility of inaccurate and untimely testing. 

“What happens if a test comes back a couple of days late or infection isn’t detected?” Geology Professor Paul Bierman said. “We need that kind of transparency.”

Under the UVM Safe and Healthy Return to Campus plan, students will be tested for COVID-19 numerous times in the first five weeks of school, with the University estimating it will conduct between 11,000 and 12,000 tests per week according to an Aug. 10 VTDigger article.  document can be found here

Marcus Weinman, a graduate student in the Stafford Lab, said that he believes he and his colleagues are not properly acknowledged in the reopening plan nor protected on campus. 

“We have a department head right now scrambling to try and find face shields, masks, gloves,” Weinman said. “We want better communication than a Microsoft Teams town hall.”

UVM Union Of Students has put forth a list of demands and an open letter to the UVM administration concerning reopening. It currently has signatures from seven organizations and 93 individuals as of Aug. 15. 

Another petition put forth by members of the community to college, city and state leaders has also been circulating. 

The University is also under pressure from Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. The Mayor sent a letter to President Suresh Garimella Aug. 5 underscoring concerns about UVM’s reopening plan. In response, Garimella doubled down in defense of UVM’s plan in an op-ed that was published by Inside Higher Ed on Aug. 10.