Some of us live in homes without Internet, in communities on the other side of the globe, and in fear that our loved ones will fall prey to COVID-19. Many of us cannot—and should not be forced to—learn online or attend classes in person if we face acute financial, familial, or health risks.
On July 7, University President Lee Bollinger emailed the Columbia community with plans for the 2020-21 school year. First-years and sophomores will be on campus in the fall, juniors and seniors will be on campus in the spring, and there will be an optional additional summer semester. By splitting the year and limiting the number of students invited back to campus, many students will be forced to take classes online for at least one semester.
Let us be clear: We do not condemn the administration’s decision to split campus accommodations in this way. Many other colleges are following similar plans. However, this decision is harmful to the student body unless the administration dismantles the current leave of absence policies. Under current policies, students who take a voluntary leave would incur penalties on their Columbia Student Health Insurance access, guaranteed housing, and potentially their financial aid. Moreover, Columbia arbitrarily limits the duration of voluntary leaves, as undergraduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science are only allowed to take a full year off rather than a semester.
These restrictions would deter first-generation, low-income students from taking voluntary leaves, as they can’t risk paying sky-high New York City rents without guaranteed housing. Yet they are simultaneously the students most disadvantaged by online classes. Additionally, the student contribution may still loom over their heads. Columbia is forcing students into an academic plan that requires adequate Internet access, financial stability, and a home environment conducive to learning during their virtual semester—privileges that many students do not have.
Though Columbia has created an application for eligible students to seek year-round housing, students who are immunocompromised, come from different countries, or have financial obligations to loved ones may not be able to complete any schooling in-person during the pandemic. It is critical that Columbia allows students to take voluntary leaves of absence and eliminates the student contribution to ensure that students can plan for this upcoming year according to their own judgment.
Even students of more privileged backgrounds should not be forced to take classes online if they choose not to. Online learning will never be an adequate substitute for in-person discussions or other aspects of the college experience—including friendships, connections with professors, clubs, events, and even hugging your friend after he gets dumped—and it should certainly not cost the same.
Given the immense uncertainty of the pandemic, the difficulty of limiting COVID-19 transmission in a college environment, the immense inequities of online learning, and the severe financial challenges faced by many students, Columbia’s leave of absence policy must be changed. This will ensure that the academic inequities of this past spring semester are not repeated and help support all members of the Columbia community in a time of crisis.
We are a group of Columbia students calling for equitable undergraduate policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We have created a petition that has garnered over 1,500 signatures to modify leave of absence policies and eliminate the student contribution. It has been endorsed by the Columbia People’s COVID-19 Response team, Columbia QuestBridge, and the Graduate Workers of Columbia.
Correction: The original version of this article indicated that students who take leave would incur penalties on their academic standing. The policy states that “students are only permitted to take a voluntary leave if they are in good academic standing,” not that a penalty will be incurred.