The skin of her hands is cracking because she religiously uses the sanitizer she keeps at the entrance of her on-campus apartment. The sophomore student at Belmont University in Nashville sits in the back corners of her packed classrooms and tries to keep a desk between her and other students. She always wears her mask, even when she is outdoors.
The student — who did not wish to be identified because of fear of losing her on-campus job — told BuzzFeed News that she is “terrified” because of the lack of COVID protocols at the private Christian university at a time when the Delta variant continues to be a threat.
“I’m genuinely scared for my life,” said the sophomore student, who is vaccinated but said she has a history of blood clots. “If I get COVID, I could die.”
Students told BuzzFeed News that the only COVID protocol in place at Belmont is indoor masking, which they say is rarely enforced outside of classrooms. Vaccination is recommended but not mandated. Social distancing is absent in classes that are at full capacity, and professors are discouraged from conducting remote lessons. Several students and at least one professor believe that on-campus cases are undercounted because testing is voluntary and students and staff are not obligated to report a positive result. Students say they are deterred from reporting their symptoms or positive cases because the university requires them to quarantine off campus at their own expense or at risk to their families.
The contentious debates among parents, governors, and K-12 school boards over COVID protocols has consumed much of the national attention this year. Parents have disrupted board meetings with loud protests, threatened doctors and educators, sued their school districts, and even been arrested for fighting over COVID protocols.
But as millions of students returned to college campuses — where cases are often underreported and COVID approaches differ drastically — several universities have pushed for an increasingly normal fall term with in-person learning and events, forcing students and faculty to advocate for themselves.
While the number of COVID cases in Davidson County, for which Nashville is the county seat, has decreased recently after a surge in September, the infection rate is still very high and the CDC recommends masks even for vaccinated residents because of the high spread, according to the New York Times tracker. The daily average number of cases in the county is 197, and there have been at least 39 deaths in the last two weeks, the Times reported.
Belmont’s students and staff say their concerns over the lack of COVID protocols have been ignored by the administration, which is headed by a new president who, as one faculty member described it, has a “flippant” approach to the pandemic.
President Gregory Jones has thrown out nearly all of last year’s precautions, including messaging about social distancing and handwashing signs in the bathroom, the faculty member told BuzzFeed News. And according to students, Jones was seen maskless at an on-campus indoor event flouting the one COVID rule he has kept in place.
“The administration is not taking Covid seriously. At all,” another student, who did not wish to be identified because he was afraid of losing his scholarship, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “I really truly believe that the president of the school only has his eyes on the politics of the school, not the students.”
In response to specific questions about its COVID protocols, Belmont provided a statement to BuzzFeed News, saying, “The health and safety of Belmont students, faculty and staff is always a priority and at the forefront of our minds as we try to provide students with an in-person living and learning experience this term.”
The statement said that the university’s COVID-19 task force, which is in contact with Jones and the state health department, monitors conditions and case counts on campus and in Nashville “and uses these inputs to evaluate protocols on a regular basis.”
Belmont’s community is finding other avenues to express its anger and fear over the lack of COVID protocols.
An immunocompromised nursing student started a petition urging Belmont to strengthen its COVID policies and mandate the vaccine. Many students, afraid of repercussions for openly criticizing the university, have resorted to submitting complaints anonymously to a Twitter account called Belmont Confessions.
“I got covid week 3 at Belmont. (yes I’m vaccinated, I’ve worn my mask unless I’m outside, etc.) Seriously questioning Belmont’s covid policies,” one tweet said.
The university’s student newspaper, Belmont Vision, published a strongly worded op-ed in September slamming the university for its “dangerous” refusal to require the COVID vaccine, even as more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the US have enforced a mandate.
Other students were angry at Belmont for returning to full capacity on campus and forcing them to make their own off-campus quarantine arrangements — a big change from last year’s protocols when the college provided on-campus wards for students with COVID, along with food assistance.
“How are we supposed to feel that we can be kicked out of our housing we are paying for if we contract Covid or are exposed if unvaccinated,” read a student’s tweet posted by Belmont Confessions. “I already have to worry about so much at college with classes & now I have to worry about being removed with no wear to go. I have no family for 800 miles & besides, who is going to just take in someone who is sick with Covid?”
“Belmonts covid response is extremely disappointing. what were they thinking asking students to drop 2k on a hotel for quarantining. That’s literally going to deter people from getting tested. This is a mess,” said another tweet posted by the account.
The sophomore student with a history of blood clots told BuzzFeed News that her roommate who got COVID had to drive for four hours with a 102-degree fever and coughing fits to quarantine at her home in Alabama.
The student said that if she contracted COVID she would have to choose between exposing her high-risk family members or spending thousands of dollars quarantining at a hotel or an Airbnb.
“If my father gets COVID, it’s basically a death sentence for him,” the student said. “If I could transfer schools, I would.”
Gia Daly, a junior, told BuzzFeed News it had become very difficult to navigate her social life on and off campus. The lack of protocols and the loosely enforced mask mandate, she said, have made her question who to trust on campus.
Daly, who is vaccinated, said she was afraid to visit her pregnant sister who lives nearby for fear of infecting her. At times, she was scared to eat at the cafeteria where workers and students are often unmasked and, unlike last year, she said, students no longer have the option to get food to-go from the cafeteria. A large number of students don’t wear masks while walking to classes in hallways and in elevators, according to those who spoke to BuzzFeed News.
“Teaching has become a scary proposition,” a Belmont faculty member wrote in an anonymous article in the Nashville Scene last month, decrying the university’s weak approach to COVID.
The faculty member lauded the neighboring Vanderbilt University’s COVID protocols and censured Belmont for acting “as though our campus has a special dispensation from God.”
“I am terrified that our unvaccinated students, faculty and staff will end up sick or much worse,” she wrote.
The faculty member, who did not wish to be identified for fear of losing her job, told BuzzFeed News that the administration had ignored emails from both students and staff outlining their concerns. Despite the buzz her article created within the community, the university did nothing in response, she added.
The faculty member said she wasn’t scared for herself as much as she was scared for several unvaccinated students in her classes, given the increase in COVID hospitalizations and deaths for younger unvaccinated people.
Students and faculty also expressed concerns that Belmont’s reporting of on-campus COVID cases was not accurate, especially as the university does not require them to report positive tests and neither does it conduct random or regular testing of unvaccinated students. Only symptomatic individuals can avail of on-campus testing.
As of Oct. 4, 69% of Belmont’s students and 75% of its faculty members were vaccinated. Vanderbilt University, which has a COVID vaccine mandate, is more than 96% fully vaccinated. But as the faculty member noted, Vanderbilt has consistently reported a higher number of positive cases than Belmont, even when taking into account its larger student population.
Professors are not allowed to ask students their vaccine status, or if they are COVID positive, but they can check their daily Symptom Tracker to know if they are asymptomatic or if they have uploaded their vaccine card to the website. But Bridget Fallon, a senior, told BuzzFeed News “it’s super easy to lie” about symptoms on the tracker.
“If our own university isn't taking COVID seriously, obviously the students aren't going to take it seriously,” Fallon said. “We can only be held to the same standards that the university is being held to, and that’s not a high standard at all.