The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Students concerned after UMW lifts employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate

4 min read

The email sent goes over the new protocols set in place by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Jan. 15. | Maggie Mae Young, The Weekly Ringer


News Editor & Staff Writer

On Tuesday, Jan. 18, UMW faculty and staff received an email from Beth Williams, executive director of human resources, with the subject line “Update on Commonwealth COVID Policies.” 

The email stated that UMW would be modifying some of its employee COVID-19 protocols, including that professors are no longer required to be vaccinated but are still required to be masked. When students discovered a copy of the email, some believed it had been purposefully withheld from students to avoid negative feedback. 

On Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 4:33 p.m., students received an email from Anna Billingsley, associate vice president of university relations, stating that the original email from Williams was intended to be sent to all students as well as faculty. 

“Cabinet intended this for the entire campus community—faculty, staff and students. However, I as the messenger, misunderstood and inadvertently left students off the recipient list. My apologies,” said Billingsley in the email.

Billingsley was notified of the mistake at 3:28 p.m., on Jan. 19.

“The chief of staff texted me to confirm that the email had gone to faculty, staff, and students. I replied, ‘Not to students.’ I had assumed the message was supposed to go ONLY to [faculty] and staff,” said Billingsley. “And administrators had assumed it went campus-wide. A communications snafu on my part.”

The Radical Students’ Union was one of many in the UMW community who reposted a screenshot of the initial email. 

“The email was tough to interpret so a COB [College of Business] faculty member asked for clarification. Faculty MUST STILL WEAR MASKS! Straight from the head of HR,” said Kim Gower, assistant professor in the College of Business, in a comment on the Radical Students’ Union’s Instagram post.

In an interview, Gower expressed her opinion on the revised vaccine policies.

“[Professors not being required to get the vaccine] is not best for the university, or anybody, especially now,” she said. “However, the new governor signed a series of executive orders on Sunday, and the school is part of the state system (26% of our funding), so we are forced to follow the executive order.”

The Radical Students’ Union printed copies of the email along with their own statement and taped copies around campus.

“We distributed flyers instead of speaking to admin because they’re comfortable keeping these conversations behind closed doors,” said the Radical Students’ Union in a post on their Instagram story. “We want this conversation to be available to the entire campus. Admin is accountable to this ENTIRE campus, not just the student leadership.”

The group expressed some of their concerns on Instagram, saying, “We are concerned that this email was only sent to Faculty. When 1,600 students live on a campus, we have a right to know.”

On the flyers that the Radical Students’ Union posted around campus, they shared additional concerns about COVID safety with the employee vaccine mandate lifted.

“How will a single 3-ply or KN95, in cramped and closed classrooms, stop the spread of Omicron at a rate [four times] as high as the original COVID-19 strain?” the flyer read. “It would be prudent of this administration to exercise the utmost caution and continue requiring testing, for ALL faculty, vaccinated or otherwise, to make sure our immunocompromised, impoverished, undocumented students and other community members have the best chances for in-person learning.” 

Other COVID protocols and restrictions have been put into place for this spring semester.

On Jan. 9, 1,609 members of the UMW community trudged through the rain to the Anderson Center for required COVID-19 testing before the start of the semester. The tests returned an optimistic 6% positivity rate, but UMW has had 152 COVID cases since Jan. 1, according to  UMW’s COVID-19 Dashboard. The total number of cases for the fall 2021 semester was 128.

The university website states that UMW “will not … close the campus or move all classes permanently to virtual learning.” However, “if we see our own cases increase too much we will take a number of steps (including potentially going online again) to curb the spread.” 

Some students who have tested positive are utilizing the campus’s available quarantine and isolation spaces in Marshall Hall, and others are choosing to go home.

UMW’s policies have been updated in response to the CDC’s guidance, which now states that isolation or quarantine can be ceased after only five days. Campus policy now allows students to leave the isolation space during the day to attend classes, but students are still expected to sleep in the isolation space if they have a roommate. Dining on campus has also reverted back to grab-and-go.

Scotti Mullen contributed to the reporting for this article.