August 10, 2020
COLUMBIA TOWN HALL FAILS TO ADEQUATELY ADDRESS COMMUNITY CONCERNS ABOUT COVID SEPTEMBER REOPENING PLANS: COMMUNITY ACTION NEEDED
Dear Members of the Morningside Heights Community:
Residents, students, business owners, and workers in Morningside Heights remain fearful after an August 5 online presentation by senior executives of Columbia University failed to assuage their concerns that the reopening of college campuses, especially Columbia, will threaten our hard-won relief from the immediate threat of the coronavirus. We as a community need to act. Please see the Requested Action section below, which outlines our initial plans. Further action is anticipated, as the situation continues to develop.
Columbia shared an array of information on its plans to invite students back to campus in September, but addressed very few of the questions that MHCC submitted in advance for the Q&A portion of the presentation. Columbia failed to pay adequate attention to community perspectives and had virtually no regard for integrating local voices in the plan being finalized for submission, within a matter of days, to New York State for approval.
Our concerns, communicated to the institutions over the past two months, and backed by a comprehensive community survey:
1. Reopening institutions remains a topic of urgent concern. Many colleges and universities have reconsidered earlier decisions to reopen their campuses (see below). But Columbia, while admitting the situation is “challenging,” has decided the risk to the safety of our community is outweighed by the benefits of students experiencing campus in person.
2. As residents, business owners, and workers in Morningside Heights, we will be impacted directly by institutional plans and should have a very detailed understanding not only of how the institutions are preparing, but of how they will monitor and enforce public health guidelines on an ongoing basis.
3. Some Columbia students and faculty are confused and are resisting reopening plans. Columbia’s student newspaper, “The Spectator”, also recently reported on doubts about student compliance with public health guidelines. Combined with significant concerns by non-university community members, this does not bode well for our well-being and peace of mind, as COVID spikes continue across the country and internationally. These are places from which many invited students will arrive in our neighborhood. (The current plan allows for at least 5,000 undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard, plus graduate students.)
For your awareness, here are reports from the broader academic arena:
- Smith College reverses its decision to invite students back to campus in September
- Princeton University reverses its decision — undergraduate classes will be fully remote this fall
- University employees concerned about student compliance with COVID guidelines
- Yale Study determines students must be tested every two to three days, and public health guidelines must be strongly enforced
MHCC is developing next steps in our efforts to ensure our voices are heard by Columbia and other local institutions and by elected officials in a position to influence the issue.
We understand the push to reopen Morningside institutions. We do not understand, however, the seeming reluctance by most of the school administrations to engage in a constructive, two-way dialogue with community members.
Requested Action: How You Can Help:
- Contact Columbia, Barnard, and our elected officials to express your concern (please cc firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Columbia University President Bollinger: email@example.com
- Barnard College President Beilock: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Governor Cuomo
- Mayor de Blasio: email@example.com
- Senator Benjamin: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Assembly Member O’Donnell: email@example.com
- Borough President Brewer: firstname.lastname@example.org
- City Council Member Levine: email@example.com
Here is a sample message:
I am writing to express my deep concern over plans by Columbia University and Barnard College to reopen for in-person classes this September.
Our community has been very diligent about following COVID public safety guidelines and we have contributed to the diminishment of the virus locally.However, as COVID is spiking across the country and internationally, our local institutions have not adequately included community perspectives and needs in their reopening plans.
We have already lost hundreds of neighbors and thousands of infections have been reported locally.We know these numbers could have been far greater.We have a legitimate right to expect greater awareness and involvement in local university plans and ongoing monitoring.
Thank you for your attention and action on this urgent matter.
End of sample message
2. As mentioned, please include firstname.lastname@example.org as a cc in your emails, so we can track engagement as we plan next steps. Also, please keep in touch with us via our website and Social Media, to let us know your thoughts.
3. Participate in our upcoming virtual town hall; details are forthcoming. Further action is anticipated. We will develop plans in consultation with our members and views expressed in our virtual town hall.
Morningside Heights has traditionally thrived when students arrive each fall and join our diverse community. That spirit remains strong in our neighborhood, but now – in the midst of a pandemic – we must pay very careful attention to how this occurs.
Our community is home to particularly vulnerable populations. The reopening plans provided to the public so far do not assure us that Columbia is adequately protecting the health and well-being of our community from the risk of possible COVID infections.
Please join us in delivering messages to Columbia and other institutional decision-makers and to our city and state government officials.
Thank you for your ongoing engagement during this critical time.
MHCC Executive Committee