In a survey conducted by The Breeze, a majority of respondents displayed a high disapproval of the university’s handling of COVID-19 and a low amount of confidence toward JMU’s ability to make safe decisions moving forward.
With JMU returning to in-person learning this week, The Breeze conducted a survey to gauge how the community — students, faculty and staff — feels about JMU’s COVID-19 decisions. Almost 2,000 people completed the survey, which shows more than 8 in 10 respondents disapprove of the way the university has handled the pandemic and about 6 in 10 said they aren’t confident JMU will make good decisions with COVID-19.
The survey was sent using JMU’s bulk email service to 21,536 students Sept. 28 and 3,887 JMU employees Sept. 29. Just over 1,250 students and 563 employees responded. About 6% of students and 14% of employees participated.
The survey asked participants to identify themselves as either students, instructional faculty, administrative and professional faculty, or staff. Instructional faculty are professors and instructors. Administrative and professional faculty are generally non-teaching administrators and directors of departments or programs, such as deans or those on JMU’s leadership team. And staff includes all other employees, such as facilities management staff, administrative assistants or other support staff.
Overall, 83.8% of respondents either disapproved or strongly disapproved of JMU’s handling of COVID-19 and only 16.2% approved or strongly approved. The disapproval was strongest among students with 91.7% disapproving or strongly disapproving of the university, and approval was strongest among administrative and professional faculty with 50.44% approving or strongly approving of JMU.
Based on the survey, there’s a contrast in how students, staff and instructional faculty view JMU’s COVID-19 response versus administrative and professional faculty. Of the 1,714 students, staff members and instructional faculty who responded, over 80% either disapproved or strongly disapproved of JMU’s COVID-19 response. For the 113 administrative and professional faculty who responded, just over half said they approved or strongly approved of JMU’s response.
On the other hand, the survey shows that 12.1% of respondents are confident or very confident in the university’s ability to make good decisions for the health and safety of the community moving forward. However, over 60% said they weren’t confident at all.
The survey, which serves as a snapshot of the JMU community’s feelings toward JMU’s handling of COVID-19, was open for about 48 hours last week and received 1,851 responses. Students made up the majority of responses with 69.04%, staff made up 12.43%, instructional faculty made up 12.37%, and administrative and professional faculty made up 6.16%.
The Breeze gave participants the option to leave specific comments about the university's handling of the pandemic. Of the 1,851 respondents, 836 left comments. All comments were reviewed by The Breeze and can be found at the conclusion of this story.
In regard to the survey and its findings, Caitlyn Read, JMU’s spokesperson and communications director, said the following in an email:
“While these particular survey responses are not necessarily consistent with a lot of the other feedback received to date, this information will be considered in addition to thousands of emails, phone calls and online comments received in the past eight months related to the university community’s ongoing COVID-19 response. We expect feedback to be ongoing as leadership continues to make challenging decisions during what is an unprecedented time, acting always in the best interest of the community’s health and safety.”
Alger’s leadership and university communication
The survey also asked respondents to rate President Jon Alger’s leadership, as well as the effectiveness of various other parts of the university. For Alger, the majority of respondents — 63.32% — either disapproved or strongly disapproved of his leadership while 19.13% approved or strongly approved. 17.55% of respondents said they didn’t have an opinion on Alger’s leadership.
For university communications, 48.32% of respondents said they either disapprove or strongly disapprove of the messages JMU’s sent out regarding COVID-19, and 41.31% of respondents either approve or strongly approve. Only 10.37% of respondents didn’t have an opinion.
Joe Fitzgerald, the technology coordinator and building manager of Harrison Hall, said he’s disappointed that JMU hasn’t explicitly said who has made certain decisions in regard to COVID-19 policies and procedures.
“JMU leadership has not been transparent about it,” Fitzgerald said. “Those decisions are made by senior leadership members. Nobody knows [exactly] who made the decision to bring students back in August.”
ORL’s handling of COVID-19
Just five days into the semester, JMU moved most of its classes online, which left students living on campus in a sticky situation.
Based on The Breeze’s survey, 46.41% of respondents disapproved or strongly disapproved of ORL’s decisions with COVID-19. Only 17.04% of respondents approved or strongly approved of ORL and 36.55% of respondents didn’t have an opinion.
One first-year student who left her contact information at the end of the survey, and who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of backlash from JMU and will be referred to as Jane Doe, said she had “high hopes” about coming to JMU in person but was “skeptical.”
As a high-risk individual, she said she was disappointed the university didn’t provide exemptions for students who didn’t feel comfortable coming back to campus from October to November as JMU offered in September. After she reached out to her advisor to gain more insight, she was told he knew “as little” as she did.
For now, she’s still paying for housing even though she isn’t living on campus this semester. She said ORL sent out a survey and she clicked the ‘I’m not returning’ option. After she selected that option, Doe said she was taken to a page with a link asking if she had chosen to withdraw and the second like was for a housing contract release. But the housing contract release is for the whole year, she said. After contacting ORL, Doe said she was told she wouldn’t receive a room and board refund unless she signed the release. But, for now, she doesn’t know if she’ll come back to campus next semester.
As a first-year student, Doe said her JMU experience has been more stressful than she’d anticipated.
“It has been really hard on me as a first-year because I didn’t expect this,” Doe said. “I feel like I’m not being heard by the administration — they’re not realizing what first-years are going through right now.”
Dining on-campus and COVID-19
Even though Dukes Dining finally made its way back this semester, COVID-19 hasn’t allowed it to boom this semester. Despite the university’s addition of Starship robots — a robot food delivery service — 48.37% of respondents said they either disapprove or strongly disapprove of dining services’ response to COVID-19. Only 20.92% said they approved or strongly approved and 30.72% said they had no opinion.
On top of her financial loss because of her on-campus housing, Doe said based on a conversation she had with ORL, she wouldn’t be refunded for her meal plan, either.
“I felt like they didn’t realize that there was a group of students who weren’t willing to move back, or if they did they chose to ignore it,” Doe said. “I feel like if they acknowledged everyone’s concerns going forward then that would be really helpful.”
UHC and COVID-19
The survey shows that 38.71% approve or strongly approve of how UHC has handled COVID-19 and 32.01% said they disapprove or strongly disapprove. However, 29.29% of respondents said they didn’t have an opinion on how the center has handled the coronavirus.
Shortly after the survey closed, JMU announced in its Friday COVID-19 update that the University Health Center would begin administering rapid testing for some cases.
COVID-19 causes academic adjustments
When it comes to academia, 59.45% of respondents said they either disapprove or strongly disapprove of JMU’s academic policies put into place during the pandemic. Only 25.16% said they approve or strongly approve and 15.39% didn’t have an opinion.
“Classes should be required to have an online option for in-person classes,” A survey respondent said in the comment portion. “If I needed to quarantine, I should not be missing two weeks of class and [in class] assignments.”
Money and COVID-19
While the majority of respondents — 39.95% — said they disapprove or strongly disapprove of JMU’s refund and withdrawal policies, 35.13% approved or strongly approved and 24.92% said they didn’t have an opinion.
One respondent said, “We are only coming back because they want our money.”
Faculty praised for flexibility
While the survey pointed to wide disapproval, one area where JMU received positive marks was for its faculty. The majority of respondents — 64.41% — said they approve or strongly approve of JMU faculty for the adjustments they’ve made so far with COVID-19. Only 20.6% said they disapproved or strongly disapproved and 14.99% said they didn’t have an opinion.
Doe Polanz, president of JMU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that faculty, especially those who teach classes, are the “core” of the university. But despite this sentiment, Polanz said that JMU hasn’t allowed for instructional faculty members to have much of a voice in the decision-making process with COVID-19. As an example, Polanz said that JMU put together several task forces in relation to COVID-19, but the members on those committees weren’t elected individuals. Instead, she said the members were designated by JMU — faculty members didn’t have a say in who should be on the task forces.
Recently, Polanz said she attended a meeting where the Faculty Senate was supposed to discuss plans for the spring semester. She said the answer faculty were given was, “Oh, we didn’t really talk about the spring, we have no plan,” about how the spring semester will look. Polanz said hearing that was scary.
She said these last-second decisions have caused a great deal of stress for instructional faculty because of the switching back and forth from online to in-person learning.
“It’s a mess,” Polanz said. “It’s extremely stressful.”
As the JMU’s AAUP chapter president, Polanz said it’s been hard watching and hearing from instructional faculty about the stress they’ve endured.
“We feel very sad and upset with this because we want to prevent this,” Polanz said. “It is certainly concerning for us and still we don't get answers.”
Ivan Jackson contributed to this report.
Contact Katelyn Waltemyer at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.