Education

Following complaints, UVM announces it is reviewing student suspensions

UVM President Suresh Garimella listens to a question about the university's response to Covid-19 at a press conference last August. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — The University of Vermont is taking another look at student suspensions for Covid violations, after outcry from students reached a tipping point last week.

In an email to students Sunday night, which VTDigger obtained, UVM President Suresh Garimella announced that “all recent cases of suspension” were being reviewed.

“I recognize that we are all exhausted and frayed by the constant demands of the past year,” he wrote, saying that he had ordered the review in “understanding the anxiety, loneliness and stress our students have been feeling.”

Students and families are currently being notified of the outcomes, Garimella said.

The move is a reversal of course in the university’s crackdown on Covid violations, which had prompted outrage among some students and parents, who complained the university’s punishments were overly harsh.

At the end of February, UVM announced that all violations of its Covid guidelines — except for one missed Covid test — could result in suspension. The guidelines include bans on guests in dorm rooms, mandates for physical distancing, and a requirement for twice-weekly testing.

In the days that followed, students condemned the policy. One student petition opposing the new protocol gathered more than 2,000 signatures in 24 hours; it now has 3,600. 

The university faced intense pressure from parents, as well, several of whom threatened lawsuits over the suspensions.

Not all students are in agreement with the petition, however. 

One UVM student living on campus, who is at high-risk for Covid, said while she felt suspensions were “a little bit extreme,” she worried students were being dismissive of the consequences of gatherings, even small ones. She asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

“It's dangerous for other people at UVM,” she said. “For high-risk students like me, older teachers, older staff, like janitors and dining hall workers, who have no choice but to come in contact with students.”

Some students’ concerns lay not only with the disciplinary measures themselves, but with the university’s handling of them. In at least three suspension cases, according to parents and students involved, the university provided no follow-up support for the sanctioned students.

In another case, a student was locked out of his dorm and the dining halls just hours after his case was decided, without guidance from the university.

As of March 7, 23 UVM students had either been suspended — barred from campus and classes for the spring semester — or removed from campus, and allowed to continue courses remotely. That number has likely risen over the past week. 

Michael Rogan, a UVM freshman, created Friday’s petition. Although he has not been sanctioned himself, he grew frustrated with the policy after several of his friends were suspended for gathering, without masks, in an off-campus hotel room.

“I think that no student, in this horrible time, deserves an academic suspension. I feel like that's just excessive,” he said, saying that the punishment should be a “last resort.” 

Like many of the petition’s signatories, Rogan argues that students should be able to continue classes remotely if they’re removed from campus for a Covid violation, instead of losing a semester’s worth of credits — and tuition dollars.

The university has now done just that. Some of his friends who were suspended have received notice that they are no longer barred from classes, Rogan said, though they still cannot return to campus.

Gary Derr, vice president for operations and public safety at the University of Vermont. UVM photo

The university has also announced that it’s considering further changes in its Covid guidelines. 

In an email to students Friday night, Gary Derr, vice president for operations and public safety, wrote that the university was “encouraged today by Gov. (Phil) Scott’s new guidance on household interactions” — which had loosened state rules on gatherings between households.

“We will work with his office, and other state officials, to define how we can apply these changes to the regulations in place for higher education,” Derr said, and he would update students on the changes this week.

Derr announced in the same email that the university is continuing twice-weekly testing until March 22, at which point it will return to once-a-week testing. The university had increased its testing requirements at the same time as it moved toward more stringent suspension policies.

At that time, the university had seen a sharp uptick in coronavirus cases among its students. Case growth has slowed since then, which Derr said proved that “our efforts have been effective.” 

UVM did not immediately return a request for comment Monday on the new policies.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: kschwenk@vtdigger.org

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