Student government hosts annual town hall

2021+Academic+Townhall

Photo: Hongyu Liu

2021 Academic Townhall

By Vivi Smilgius, Editor-in-Chief

Students, staff, and faculty voiced their concerns about the college’s virtual attendance policies and discussed the college’s spring reopening plans at the Student Government Association’s annual academic town hall on Tuesday. 

The event was the first town hall hosted in-person since 2019—and the first town hall to touch on themes like diversity and inclusion and the COVID-19 pandemic. It included an hour-long question-and-answer session with several administrators, including Interim Provost Jan Roberts-Breslin and Associate Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp, followed by another hour of discussions broken up by department.

“It is one of the few events that we do on campus to bridge the gap between faculty, students, and administrators,” Executive Vice President Pranit Chand said in an interview. “Not only is it a time for us to share our grievances but also make sure that people are hearing them and sharing their opinions as well.”

During the town hall, Muurisepp touted Emerson’s response to the pandemic. He said the college was never pushed to implement a virtual or hybrid learning model despite a surge in positive tests in early September. The rest of the semester, he said, showed low positivity rates—which he noted were to be expected with the college mandating COVID-19 vaccines—and low active case numbers. The college racked up 93 positive COVID-19 tests this semester, with an overall test positivity rate of 0.14 percent.

Muurisepp said Emerson will continue its testing policy, mandating all students get tested weekly, into the spring semester and maintain its indoor mask mandate in the winter months. He also encouraged students to get their COVID-19 booster shots and flu vaccinations to limit the severity of illnesses, should they become infected.

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The college does not currently plan to implement new restrictions to stem the spread of the Omicron variant; though Muurisepp acknowledged that administrators were wary, he said the variant was “not cause for panic.”

“We don’t see it impacting our operations for the rest of the fall semester and we’re hoping nothing will be impacted for the spring,” Muurisepp said.

Roberts-Breslin added that the college plans to continue delivering an in-person experience next semester. While masking, distancing, and testing requirements will remain the same, Roberts-Breslin said guest policies and in-person events have yet to be determined.

jehan ayesha wirasto, SGA’s executive president, pressed administrators on whether the college would be more flexible about students taking mental health breaks or attending classes virtually in the future. During ayehsa-wirasto’s tenure in the presidency, SGA has made a stronger push for the college to adapt its policies to accommodate students’ need for time off. 

Roberts-Breslin said that, while faculty are “always talking” about students’ well-being, online learning only made it more difficult for students and faculty to meet their respective learning goals.

“One of the issues with Zooming into classes is it’s really not a great substitute for being there,” she said.

Nevertheless, Roberts-Breslin said faculty are continuing to make adjustments.

“It’s a shifting landscape and one that requires a lot of ongoing attention and discussion,” she said.

Professor Heather May added that online attendance poses not only logistical issues, but also pedagogical issues as, in many cases, they make it more difficult for faculty to teach. 

May said that while these negotiations are important, it is equally important to ensure students are receiving the education they came to Emerson to get.

“We want to meet the students where they’re at but we also want to make sure we’re maintaining a level of excellence in our teaching,” May said.

Roberts-Breslin encouraged students and faculty to expand on this discussion to find solutions.

“It’s something we need to continue to work on,” Roberts-Breslin said during the town hall. “I would welcome digging into this with the faculty, with the students, to see if we can find the new solution that takes advantage of the good parts of technology but doesn’t create both logistical and pedagogical issues.”

Fellow panelist and Director of Student Accessibility Services Diane Paxton also noted that the writing and academic resource center has doubled its hours this semester and is working hard to help students complete and submit work, especially as end-of-semester stress and procrastination set in.

Roberts-Breslin added that students need to be “proactive in their communication” when needing to miss class and that faculty should be upfront about their attendance expectations at the beginning of the semester.

“If you have to be out for your own wellness and the protection of others’ wellness as well, that’s okay,” said Roberts-Breslin. “But at the same time, what does shared accountability in that situation look like?”

Many questions from the audience were left unanswered at the end of the hour. Chand said the shortcomings of this year’s panel—namely, technical difficulties and time limitations—would be taken into consideration and prevented in the future.

“Obviously, with every event, there are things we can improve on,” Chand told The Beacon after the event. “We will certainly be taking [time limits] into consideration when we conduct the town hall next time.”

Chand said he was happy with the overall turnout and considered the town hall a success despite not lasting long enough to address all the audience’s questions. He said that even though the turnout was mostly virtual, the questions asked reflect “a healthy concern regarding academics at Emerson.”

Now, he said, SGA will debrief the afternoon’s conversations, collect notes from each departmental session as well as the larger panel discussion and begin drafting legislation for next semester. 

“This Academic Town Hall has given [SGA] a lot of data and information to work with,” he said. “When these opinions are raised beforehand, administrators are able to act on it effectively… creating that cycle benefits everyone in the long run.”