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SDS pushes University of Utah on COVID-19 after victory on counselors

By Bryn Dayton |
April 7, 2020
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Salt Lake City, UT - Every victory comes with new challenges and new setbacks. Organizers with Students for a Democratic Society are learning that lesson in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as they start a new struggle for hazard pay as well as refunds for fees and tuition.

SDS organizers left the University of Utah for spring break in high spirits after the school met their demands for more mental health counselors, a demand they had been making for months. When the promised new counselors are hired, the school will finally be in compliance with national guidelines on the counselor-to-student ratio.

Celebrations were short lived, however.

During the break, Utah officials finally grasped the seriousness of COVID-19, completely upending student life and creating a host of new challenges. The university quickly shut down the campus and moved all classes online.

Administrators initially assured students that they could stay in campus housing, but the school soon backtracked and announced that most students would be required to move out on March 27, just five days before landlords generally start new leases. While the university allowed some to apply for exceptions, most were forced to move out with little notice.

“The evictions are based on an assumption that people have somewhere to go when that is not always true, and it’s especially difficult to relocate right now,” said student Theresa Nielson. “U of U housing is basically an apartment complex: You can still isolate. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

On March 24, SDS organized call-ins to President Ruth Watkins and Vice President of Student Affairs Lori McDonald to demand no students be evicted. Administrators told callers that the forced move-outs were not “evictions” because rent and meal plans were being prorated and refunded.

Regardless of administrative semantics, students were kicked out nonetheless. Queer students were forced back to families that misgendered them; others went home to high-risk cities and states; still others returned to parents working high-risk jobs in healthcare.

Though the university has made drastic changes toward protecting students, staff and faculty, it is disregarding many mental health, safety and financial issues. The university has extended its class withdrawal period, but refuses to refund tuition for students who withdraw, even for those who can’t accommodate online classes. The school has shut down many buildings on campus, but students and staff still work without personal protective equipment or hazard pay. And because the campus is shut down, many services are not being provided, despite being paid for by student fees.

In response, SDS is demanding hazard pay for all on-campus workers, tuition refunds for withdrawals, and refunds for all student-fee-related services that are not being rendered. These echo demands being made on campuses across the country.

SDS organizers also reiterated their commitment to mental health services both during pandemic and after students return, saying it will be more important than ever for students who have lived through a deeply traumatic time to have access to counselors.

“Counseling availability is always important because mental health resources are a human right, Nielson said. “Right now, with more uncertainty and stress, it is especially important to have these resources available.”

The University of Utah says it is working to provide counseling to students living out of state. SDS says it will continue to monitor the situation, and if counseling is not provided during the pandemic, it will expand its demands.