Students raise concerns about mental health and conduct processes amid strict COVID-19 restrictions

A virtual meeting with the COVID Committee allowed students to air grievances


Washington and Lee University students voiced concerns about student mental health and problems in the COVID-19 conduct process in a Zoom meeting with the Covid Committee on Oct. 8.

“Mental health should be the number one priority,” Caroline Snyder, ‘21, said. “We pay over $70,000 to go to this school and we can’t even get a counselor.”

The COVID-19 Committee held the town hall meeting to help students brainstorm ideas for ways to have “safe fun.”

Toni Locy, professor of journalism, said she got the idea from her students, who said they were feeling “cut off” from the committee.

“We are ‘they’ when you talk about ‘they are doing this’ and ‘they are doing that,’” Committee Chair and Associate Provost Paul Youngman said.

Isabel Chiodo, ‘21, spoke specifically about seasonal depression and the lack of services available to students to address their mental health. Throughout the fall term, students have been able to socialize in groups of 10 to 25 people outdoors, but the indoor guidelines have been stricter.

“I think we’re talking about the fall like it’s going to be like the winter, and it’s not,” Chiodo said. “The counseling center is understaffed. You can’t get an appointment in weeks, and when you do, it’s virtual, meaning that your roommates can hear your conversations. It just feels like the only risk that is really being taken is our mental health.”Students also said they felt administrators were prioritizing coronavirus-related concerns over the toll on their mental health. “I understand that COVID-19 causes death, and it has caused a lot of uncertainty for our country and for our school and our community as a whole since the beginning of March,” Lindy Gearon, ‘22, said. “But at the same time, I have a fear for the well-being of my student body, and I’ve never been more scared.”

Youngman said that Student Affairs is looking into expanding its operations. And K.C. Shaefer, member of the COVID committee and executive director of auxiliary services, said that Student Health is actively recruiting another counselor right now.

“There is no easy answer,” Shaefer said. “Mental health issues can be deadly as well and we recognize that. We have to keep balancing that. But it really is a tough balancing act that we have got to find the right middle ground on.”Committee members said that mental health services are not under their purview but they can and will serve as advocates to the administration.

“There are real mental health concerns all the time, but those are certainly exacerbated in the environment we are in right now, and we understand that,” Shaefer said. “We do need to provide additional resources for that, and we are pushing for that.”

Youngman stressed the importance of each student making the best personal decisions in light of their own mental health.

“If your personal anxiety level is such that it is keeping you from working, you really should think about what’s best for you even right now, at this point in the semester,” Youngman said. “We will work with you on the choices that you make.”

Locy also urged students to talk to professors about extensions or breaks.

“Just talk to us,” she said. “I try to pay attention, but sometimes it’s hard because you all hide it well. Remember that we do care deeply about each and every one of you, and your mental health is a top priority.”

Some students also called for loosening restrictions and developing herd immunity on campus.

Biology Department Chair Bill Hamilton explained that herd immunity means 70% of the population has to be exposed to COVID-19 and develop antibodies.

“That’s a lot of people,” Hamilton said. “And we’re then taking a chance that — even if one of those students or faculty members dies, is that worth the risk for our campus community?”

Many students also brought up the fact that there is no appeals process when it comes to conduct violations, or other chances to defend oneself from accusations.

“I was not offered any appeal, and no one I have known to be in trouble has ever been offered an appeal,” Mac Lyerly, ‘22, said.

Locy said that 300-400 students have had conduct issues. The committee members emphasized that they do not have any jurisdiction over conduct violation disciplinary actions — that is the job of Student Affairs.

According to Tammi Simpson, the associate dean of students and dean of seniors, in an email, the COVID-19 Committee stated that students who engage in conduct in “deliberate, reckless, or repeated disregard” of community standards can be sanctioned by the University.

These sanctions can be fines (ranging from $50 to $200), conduct probation (for a semester, two semesters, or a full year), and removal from on-campus classes and on-campus housing.

Nearly 20 students have been removed from on-campus classes so far during fall term.

Simpson also stressed that conduct tracing and the conduct process are separate.

“One is not related to the other and should not be construed that way,” she said

Riley Thornbury, ’21, stressed the need for more transparency and communication in the conduct process. She said that there is an extreme lack of communication between public safety, greek life, the administration, the health center and the student body.

“The fact that there are so many different hands in this pot, and the fact that there is no appeals process, and also the fact that the administration isn’t giving any opportunity for this to be heard further is just a little bit troubling,” Thornbury said. “It’s been a very disappointing time to be a student here.”

Committee members said they plan to share student concerns with their colleagues in Student Affairs.

“The intent behind all the rules is to never punish someone who has just made a slip-up, or who’s done something by carelessness or forgetfulness,” Schaefer said. “I think it is our role to make sure the process is working better than it is right now, because clearly this is instrumental to us all being here. And you have to trust in the conduct process in order to abide by the rules and feel that you are going to be treated fairly.”

In response to numerous calls about easing restrictions, committee members emphasized that their main goal for a while was keeping Washington and Lee open.

“Up until now, we’ve been dealing with putting out fires and not having the chance to forecast and plan ahead,” Hamilton said. “We’re at a point now where I think as a committee we can start thinking about those things more, and we are.”

In an email update sent on Oct. 12, the committee announced updates to restrictions. Committee members spoke of the progress the university has made through contact tracing and following guidelines, avoiding school closure. But, they also emphasized the importance of continuing these behaviors in order to stay open.

“If you have outdoor activities that you want to do, we want you to pursue them with gusto,” Youngman said. “The message always has to be: choose the safest course of action that you can possibly choose.

There were 50 people at the meeting in the beginning — but attendance hit its peak at 105 members at around 9:30 p.m. Many attendees tuned into the Zoom call with their roommates.

The Covid Committee also addressed other student questions about:

Breaks in the semester. The committee said they are actively talking about scheduling breaks in the academic schedule, especially for winter term. “We hear your request for that, but I’m not overpromising anything,” Youngman said.

Raising gathering limits. Shaefer said the committee is actively discussing this as one of the next steps. Hamilton stressed the importance of continuing to wear masks and social distancing. The COVID-19 scale. “I know the gauge looks like a freaking cartoon, and that it is just going to sit there like a cartoon. It’s not,” Youngman said. “It is a living conversation that happens for an hour and 15 minutes, 3 days a week and it’s painful. When we can move it we’re going to move it.”

Increasing group gathering limits, specifically for student organizations. Committee members confirmed this is being talked about. Hamilton stressed their concerns about having other groups, not student organizations, thinking they can then increase their gathering size. As of Oct. 13, the indoor gathering limit has been increased to 10 people, and the outdoor limit has been increased to 25. Testing. Shaefer said that W&L is probably going to triple the amount of asymptomatic testing. Hamilton spoke to the effectiveness of sewage testing, saying that will increase as well. Shaefer also said that randomized testing subjects are selected via random number generator.

Having a credit/no credit grading option. Youngman said that is outside of the purview of the committee. Locy explained that the school has specific procedures it is required to follow because of its accredited status, making a pass/fail option unlikely. Jay Walton ‘22 created a petition shortly after the meeting calling for a credit/no credit option for this semester. As of Friday, Oct. 16, it had over 1,025 signatures.

Dining seating. Shaefer said they plan to open D-hall and Evans Hall indoor dining, and potentially outdoor heated spaces, especially as weather gets colder. As of Oct. 13, indoor dining has resumed in D-hall and Evans.