Town Hall addresses Spring 2022 COVID-19 policies, Campus Dining and student support services

Changes for Spring 2022 include a Commodores Care period until Jan. 24, increased Student Care drop-in hours, incentives for virtually attending sporting events and new Dining offerings.

Alumni+Hall

Alex Venero

Alumni Hall, as photographed on Aug. 28, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Alex Venero)

Brina Ratangee, Staff Writer

On Jan. 11, Vanderbilt hosted a virtual Undergraduate Students and Families Town Hall to share updates regarding Campus Dining, COVID-19 protocols and student support services for the Spring 2022 semester. 

Director for the Student Center for Social Justice & Identity (SCSJI) Dr. Ashley Brown moderated the town hall, and the featured panelists were Dean of Students G.L. Black, Associate Vice Chancellor for Health and Wellness Pam Jones, Office of Student Care Coordination Assistant Director Dr. Jamye Hardy and Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) André Churchwell.

Delayed start of semester

Black said that Vanderbilt administration used case numbers, hospitalization rates and research from Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to inform their decision to delay the start of the semester.

“Certain graduate programs might have different accreditation dates they have to meet, but most graduate and professional programs delayed their start as well,” Black said. 

In the faculty town hall, Tracey George, vice provost for faculty affairs, clarified that the number of class days will remain the same, with classes now ending on April 29 and final exams ending on May 9 for undergraduate students. Commencement and spring break are not currently scheduled to change.

“[We are] not considering canceling spring break as that time is important for rest, recharge and overall student health and wellness,” Black said.

COVID-19 policies

Black elaborated on the new health and safety procedures for students’ return to campus that were shared in a Dec. 30 email. Jones noted that any type of COVID-19 test, including at-home antigen tests, is acceptable for students’ pre-arrival tests.

Jones also said students are allowed to test at the auxiliary gym of the Recreation and Wellness Center once they arrive on campus if they are unable to obtain a test at home. However, she encouraged students to test in their communities if possible. Vanderbilt’s COVID-19 testing center will be open on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to accommodate for the large influx of students returning to campus on Jan. 17. Black added that funding to pay for at-home tests is available via the Student Hardship Fund, which can be requested by contacting the Office of the Dean of Students. 

If a student tests positive once on campus, Jones said they will only have to isolate for five days—in line with the CDC’s updated guidelines—as long as they report resolving symptoms and no fever at the end of this period. In the event a student tests positive, they are exempt from testing for 90 days. Students can submit proof of a positive COVID-19 test result to the return-to-campus form in lieu of a negative test result.

Similar to last semester, there will not be virtual class options for students in quarantine. Instead, Black applauded faculty members’ “interesting approaches” to handling this situation and assured students and families that professors would implement solutions, from creating supplemental videos to expanding office hours.

“Obviously, the shorter quarantine period will be helpful in keeping students on track,” Black said. “There have been lots of technological solutions so far, and, hopefully, these will be shared across faculty, students and schools.”

Churchwell also spoke to the fact that COVID-19 has revealed socioeconomic health disparities. He specifically named poverty as a social determinant of access to health care and medications, higher rates of infection and higher morbidity—up to twice as much among the Latinx and Black communities and up to three times as much among Native Americans as compared to whites. Churchwell also discussed how access to COVID-19 testing was a major issue in Nashville, particularly in marginalized communities, and he praised Vanderbilt’s resources.

“We don’t have this issue of people not having access to tests based on finances,” Churchwell said.

During the faculty town hall, George reaffirmed Vanderbilt’s “sincere, serious” dedication to in-person learning. She also said that Vanderbilt will monitor the pandemic and make adjustments to learning methods if needed.

In addition to the arrival testing requirement, Vanderbilt is implementing “more rigorous” masking requirements and testing policies. Professors and guest speakers are now required to wear masks “for a while.” Unvaccinated students will be required to test twice a week; vaccinated students who have not received a booster shot will have to test once a week and vaccinated, boosted students will be subject to the sentinel testing program

Vanderbilt’s contact tracing program will continue, although Jones said the system may change in the future.

“We’re working on automating part of the process to create additional capacity to manage any surges,” Jones said.

Commodores Care period

Black said the Commodores Care period was sparked by the increase of COVID-19 cases and because the omicron variant is more contagious than past variants. However, he also said it exhibits “milder” symptoms. Jones shared that Vanderbilt’s Command Center is seeing increased positive tests from students already on campus and from those reporting off-campus positive tests. The Command Center announced they will not publish any case data from winter break but plan to resume updating data on the COVID-19 dashboard on Jan. 19.

“We wanted to have this calming-down period [Commodores Care] because omicron is so highly contagious,” Jones said. “Most people think we’re going to peak in the middle to end of January.”

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs C. Cybele Raver elaborated on Vanderbilt’s positivity rates and vaccination data in the Jan. 7 faculty town hall. For Fall 2021, she stated that there was a 96% vaccination rate across the Vanderbilt community, with the positivity rate averaging just under 0.2% for vaccinated individuals and 1% for the unvaccinated.

When asked about Vanderbilt’s plan in the event of a major outbreak, Jones said that her team has the primary goal of being to support the in-person campus experience. Raver added in the faculty town hall that this commitment to in-person learning includes research, creative expression and Immersion experiences.

“We know we are going to have a spike. The question is how high will that spike be,” Jones said. “We have a game plan and will be very, very responsive, as we always have.”

Students have criticized the Commodores Care period, especially for its prohibition against students attending university sporting events, while simultaneously allowing Memorial Gymnasium—home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams—to operate at full capacity. 

Black responded to this discrepancy by stating that the university has an “internal focus” on the Vanderbilt community in an effort to keep the campus open. In the past, Vanderbilt has boasted their efforts to improve global health and well-being via their research.

“Vanderbilt’s foundational research in the basic sciences, coupled with our institutional ties to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is making a deep, real-world impact on an insidious disease unlike any we have faced in generations,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said in a Dec. 18, 2020, research news press release.

Black said virtual programming for students in lieu of attending games in person will be available, for which students can register on AnchorLink.

“Because we know this is disappointing and we want to show school spirit, we came up with a number of projects for virtual engagement,” Black said. “Red Panda is performing acrobatics during tonight’s game, and there will be virtual fan watch parties next week with the chance to win ‘snack and swag bags.’”

Jones said the university is working to avoid extending the Commodores Care period past Jan. 24. 

“We will do everything we can to not extend it because we recognize how impactful this is to our students and whole community,” Jones said. 

Black said students should contact the Public Health AmbassaDore hotline or complete a general incident report form if they notice anyone failing to comply with the updated COVID-19 guidelines.

Dining updates

Black acknowledged the issues surrounding Campus Dining during the fall semester including long lines and food shortages, citing Vanderbilt’s supply chain and staffing shortages as their cause.

He shared that there will be additional stations open across various campus dining halls, including the return of Mediterranean bowls at Rand, made-to-order flatbreads and pierogi bowls at Commons and a custom omelet bar at EBI. Black did not identify which offerings, if any, would be order-ahead after the Commodores Care period.

Additionally, there are extended dining hours at several dining halls. Rand will be open continuously from breakfast to lunch (7 a.m. to 3 p.m. CST). In addition to their normal hours, residential college dining halls, including Zeppos, E. Bronson Ingram (EBI) and Commons, will remain open for dinner until 8 p.m CST. Likewise, the Kitchen at Kissam will now be open for breakfast from 7-10 a.m. CST on weekdays and for brunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. CST on weekends. 

The Highland Munchie will offer a sushi and bubble tea meal plan combo from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. CST on weekdays.

Student support services

Hardy acknowledged the effect of Vanderbilt’s policies and protocols on student mental health and well-being. Since the start of the pandemic, she said there has been a 16% increase in the number of appointments that have been made with mental health specialists—totaling approximately 1,300 appointments. 

In response to this rise of appointments, Hardy said that the Office of Student Care has increased their number of staff, enhanced cultural competency for all employees, expanded support for students in marginalized communities and established drop-in hours for all Student Care offices.

To account for mental health issues that may arise from the Commodores Care period, Hardy said that all Student Care offices have expanded drop-in hours and appointment offerings, both of which will be offered primarily virtually during the Commodores Care period. 

To support students and build a sense of belonging, Churchwell said that he and his team created the Belonging Measurement Taskforce to develop belonging tools and metrics, among which are biannual surveys that Vanderbilt uses to evaluate its EDI initiatives.

“Our Chancellor has made belonging an important goal for us to achieve,” Churchwell said. “Think of belonging as a flywheel phenomenon: you need to have diversity, which we have in spaces at Vanderbilt, a sense of community and inclusion.”