Montclair State University students have raised concerns over a lack of social distancing in classrooms as the omicron variant of coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread.
While other universities in New Jersey started their semester with remote learning, Montclair State decided to continue with their in-person classes. According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, 109 cases were reported during the first week of classes.
Kelly Meagher, a sophomore film and television major, said she received a notification that she was exposed to COVID-19 in a class that was not socially distant.
“I personally felt with the rise of the omicron variant we should have had a hybrid option because some of our classes have a large number of people,” Meagher said. “I even felt a little concerned on that day in class, feeling there was too many of us packed too close together. Little did I know, a few days later I was going to be getting an email saying that I was exposed.”
Anna Mccabe, a junior visual communication design major, was exposed to COVID-19 in her Global Art History class. Mccabe said the class is overpacked and students must sit in close proximity to one another.
“The room is relatively small and we are all sitting at a desk made for two, so it’s very close proximity to each other,” Mccabe said. “Having wipes out might have been nice and would have made me feel a little safer because other than the plastic shield over the professor’s podium, there wasn’t anything. I also think the class is overpacked. A few people were missing on the first day but I recall seeing every seat filled.”
Juliana Vasile, a junior English major, said social distancing is not being enforced in one of her linguistics classes.
“While taking attendance, the professor remarked that there’s about 35 people in the class,” Vasile said. “I was shocked because we’re all crammed like sardines. Everyone’s sitting on top of each other.”
Kristopher Skotek, a junior accounting major, said he noticed issues with social distancing in his classes at the Feliciano School of Business.
“From what I’ve noticed, the campus as a whole, and particularly the business school, is very bad at social distancing,” Skotek said. “None of my lectures are socially distant even though they are run at capacity. The fact that nobody in my classes has caught [COVID-19] is a miracle.”
Harleigh MacBeth, a junior Spanish and public relations major, said one of her classes in the School of Communication and Media (SCM) is not socially distant.
“The class is extremely full and looks like [the university] decided to make classes at full capacity, even with omicron [going around],” MacBeth said. “I can’t understand why they would do this. Students are anxious enough with omicron being extremely transmissible, and instead of taking precautionary measures, it feels as though they don’t care. Full classes, no distance and just a HawkCheck that you can easily lie on [because] no one checks.”
Rich Wolfson, president of Montclair State’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the university should be practicing social distancing.
“Relative to class size, the number of students in a section is not what matters,” Wolfson said. “It’s how many students are in a particular space. We should have no packed classrooms during the pandemic or for that matter, even when the virus becomes endemic like the flu.”
Wolfson also emphasized the importance of other precautions being taken to keep the community safe.
“The union is confident that our physical spaces have appropriate ventilation, high-quality HEPA filters and air exchange mechanics that when combined with vaccines, boosters and with appropriately worn high-quality masks at all times when we are indoors or outdoors when in groups will keep us as safe as possible,” Wolfson said.
David Winters, an adjunct professor in the SCM said the school and the union are not doing enough to keep students and faculty safe.
“Administrators and union leadership at [Montclair State] want us to act as though everything is normal while the world is burning around us, but there’s nothing normal about students and teachers being forced into classrooms they don’t feel safe being in,” Winters said. “There’s nothing normal about watching hospitals fill up with their friends and family; nothing normal about being ordered to follow contradictory and unevenly applied policies.”
Winters stated that he is having difficulty enforcing social distancing in his classes.
“Regarding social distancing and airflow, both my courses are in newer buildings with good ventilation, but we’re not able to maintain social distance in either room,” Winters said.
Andrew Mees, the university spokesperson, spoke about how Montclair State is focusing on vaccinations and masks this semester.
“Based on a growing body of scientific evidence, the university is emphasizing vaccinations, including booster shots, and wearing masks instead of social distancing,” Mees said.
Mees added that few cases have been traced to classroom spread.
“There have also been very few cases attributed to transmission within a classroom environment since in-person classes resumed last fall,” Mees said. “The vast majority of transmissions continue to occur in social settings or in off-campus encounters.”
Winters encourages students and faculty to speak up against the administration’s policies.
“We need leadership with the courage to face up to the changes we’re living through and the personnel [Montclair State] has in place are acting as though they’re unwilling to do that,” Winters said. “The leadership we need can only emerge from grassroots student and faculty organizing and I’m hoping the spring at [Montclair State] sees an uptick in creative and inspiring activism.”