Trouble Arises as John Jay Reopens for In-person Instruction

Amid the growing number of Covid-19 variants and safety concerns, John Jay began in-person instruction on Wednesday, August 25.

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On August 25, John Jay opened its doors to students for the first time since March 2020. However, some students and faculty remain apprehensive about returning to classrooms, with concerns about masks, vaccinations, and the mutating virus.

According to Mark Flower, John Jay’s Interim Vice President, COO, and the Coronavirus Campus Coordinator, 500 faculty and 2,700 students attended the first day of the semester on John Jay’s campus.

Flower said that only a few students were turned away on day one for failing to provide proper proof of a negative Covid-19 test and or proof of vaccination per CUNY’s rules. He said that some students were confused about the rules and were frustrated that the school’s public safety turned them away. He said that the students likely had not read the many emails they received about the institution’s safety protocols for returning to campus.

Mask Mandate Sign

Students have until September 27 to upload their proof of full vaccination to CUNYfirst.

The student deadline allows the documents to be approved and verified by October 7, 45-days after the FDA fully approved the Pfizer vaccine. Students who miss the deadline can be subject to academic withdrawal.

Students can receive religious or medical exemptions if they apply for one on CUNYfirst and get approved.

Flower said that despite any confusion students might have, they must think quickly about whether they want to remain in on-campus courses or not for the remainder of the semester. Based on his understanding of being part of finance, he said there would be no tuition refunds if students remained unvaccinated past the September 27 deadline and had to withdraw from their courses.

“You need to get vaccinated if you’re taking in-person classes,” Flower said. “If you do not want to get vaccinated, then you gotta get out of those classes now.”

On August 19, six days before the first in-person courses were set to start, the John Jay Faculty Senate Committee passed a resolution in a special meeting concerning the reopening plan. The resolution expressed concerns about returning to campus until students were fully vaccinated. 

The Faculty Senate resolution also raised concerns about the rise of coronavirus cases in Manhattan. In addition, the mask exceptions provided by the CUNY Chancellor, Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, went against the John Jay Access Reopening Plan Subcommittee’s reopening plan that had much stricter mask policies.

“The chancellor came out with a policy that professors can take off their masks while they’re teaching,” said Karen Kaplowitz, the Vice President of the Faculty Senate. “That’s absurd.”

Kaplowitz, a member of John Jay’s reopening committee, added that the exception was an example of terrible modeling because students may be inclined to remove their masks to give an oral report in the classroom. She said that if a professor could remove their mask and a student could not, it would be unfair, adding that neither the professor nor student should have their masks off in the classroom.

“I am very troubled,” Kaplowitz said.

When reached for a comment regarding the concerns raised in the Faculty Senate resolution, a CUNY spokesperson offered this statement via email.

“Since the onset of this pandemic, CUNY’s top priority has been the safety of our students, staff, and faculty. The University’s reopening policies follow the best available information from the city, state, and federal health authorities, including our mask policy. It is also important to note that only vaccinated faculty who are able to keep socially distant have the option — if they choose — to remove their mask.”

Jay Walk

Many of the students who returned to campus did so because remote learning was not their preferred learning method. Although students were aware of the looming vaccine mandates since May when former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo initially issued the vaccine mandates, some remain unvaccinated.

Karla Saenz, a junior, decided she would return to campus this semester almost immediately after hearing CUNY planned to reopen for the fall semester in June. She also got vaccinated shortly after her decision knowing it was required to attend courses on campus.

‘I was too comfortable at home,” she said. Adding that, she struggled heavily with learning remotely. She took two in-person courses for the fall semester and wished she had taken more.

“I am hoping the school won’t close down. I hope it won’t come to that,” Saenz said. “But if it does, there is nothing I can do about it, I’d just have to roll with it.”

Under the current guidelines, CUNY campuses are not required to pause in-person instruction if they test 25% of their in-person population, including students and faculty, and the positive cases do not exceed 100 people or 5% of its in-person population over a 14-day rolling period. However, John Jay’s President Karol Mason can speak with the chancellor to potentially shut down the college if the number of cases falls under the current guideline’s threshold. Without the chancellor’s approval, the college cannot close.

For John Jay senior Tais Calva-Juarez, she said she was scared when John Jay shut down in March 2020 when there was a positive Covid-19 case in the college. But now, she said she would not be worried unless the institution had a significant number of cases. 

Calva-Juarez decided to take most of her courses on-campus this semester. She commutes from Long Island and says that public transportation can make her feel uncomfortable amid virus concerns but takes solace in her ability to take proper safety precautions. She said she constantly sanitizes, wears her mask indoors and outdoors, and is fully vaccinated. She added that the institution had replicated the prospect of taking proper safety precautions, making her feel safe on campus.

Professor Andrew Sidman, Chair of the Political Science Department, and a member of the John Jay reopening committee said other than a few disagreements with some of the chancellor’s decisions, there was a lot of consistency with the decisions made on all levels. He said it also bodes well for the institution to be consistent with how to model instruction for the semester.

“Outside of a stronger crisis, we shouldn’t change class modalities mid-semester,” he said. 

“Barring information to the contrary, we should remain in-person.”