With another semester comes another wave of Covid, and students and staff are once again in the firing line. Despite years of grim Zoom calls making many staff and students desperate for in-person learning, for some, the risk of getting Covid still outweighs the benefits of being on campus. This risk is exacerbated by the lack of any mandatory mask mandates, allowing individual departments and even lecturers to set their own rules.
As of writing, the Uni “strongly recommends masks are worn indoors”. A Uni spokesperson told Critic Te Arohi that “there are staff and students who are vulnerable to Covid and flu and everyone wearing a mask is their last line of defence.” Despite this, masks are not mandatory in lectures, tutorials and across most of campus.
Critic Te Arohi spoke with Sean, the co-president of the Otago Disabled Students Association (ODSA) to better understand the situation. Sean said, "[The Uni's response to Covid] has been largely reactionary,” adding that “not having a generalised consistent policy on mask usage does not make a lot of sense and puts staff at risk.” Danica, a University lecturer in the Law department, told Critic Te Arohi, “I am worried about getting Covid at work,” adding, “I'm very, very grateful to students who wear a mask (and wear it properly).” The Uni told Critic Te Arohi that they have been “as proactive as possible in our response”, and that “University policy on use of masks has been consistent… we have always strongly recommended use of masks by both students and staff while indoors.” They cited consultation with infectious disease experts and student representatives in defence of their policies, maintaining that they’re doing their best to confront “the biggest disruption we have faced as a nation in generations, and easily the biggest disruption to tertiary education globally since the Second World War.”
But while the University may be “satisfied that the campus is as safe as possible for our students”, the messaging around mask “recommendations” has led to confusion amongst some students and legitimate concern over the risks among others. Danica told Critic Te Arohi: “it's not fair that those students [who do not feel safe coming to class] are excluded from in-person learning and isolated from their peers.” “I think there's a definite conflict and contention around the lack of a mask mandate, and then expecting in person attendance,” said Sean. “You've got some departments and specific lecturers that are encouraging mask wearing, [creating] varying degrees of compliance.”
The discrepancies were not limited to departments; while one grad student we spoke to said that masks were “a necessary evil,” a second-year said that they “genuinely do not give a fuck about masks”, because “everyone just takes them off anyway, they’re useless, they’re just for show.” As of writing, the Disability Information Support Service is one of the few spaces on campus where masks remain mandatory. However, as Sean pointed out: "Disabled [and immunocompromised] people exist in more places than just the Disability Information Support Service."
If that weren’t enough, inconsistencies around the availability of online learning options, such as live-streamed or pre-recorded lectures, mean that many disabled students feel they are forced to chance catching Covid on campus or risk falling behind. While it can be easy to point the finger at lecturers and departments, Sean acknowledged that this isn’t entirely their fault. With many departments struggling with limited resources, online learning is “either not a feasible or intuitive option for them, or they're having to [provide online learning options] based on social accountability or responsibility.” The Disability Information Support Service has been working to try and change this, by liaising with departments that do not have accessible online learning options set up and helping them to find solutions.
However, ODSA maintains that the best long-term solution is a mandatory mask mandate on campus, saying that it would be a good way to “balance the benefits of in-person learning while easing this threat to the disabled community”. They have drafted an open letter to Vice-Chancellor David Murdoch, and are currently distributing it to student clubs and Uni departments for their feedback, comments and signatures.