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‘Mask violations abound’: Belmont faculty member challenges university COVID-19 protocol

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

The Belmont community is abuzz with reactions to a Nashville Scene article submitted by an anonymous Belmont professor condemning the university’s lack of COVID-19 precautions.

In the article, which was published to the Scene website Tuesday, the author said Belmont “has thrown out all precautions except one,” referring to the university’s indoor mask mandate for all students, faculty and staff, regardless of vaccination status — a mask mandate which often goes unobserved.

“Vanderbilt leads the way for being as safe as possible for in-person learning in our community. Belmont does not, but instead acts as though our campus has a special dispensation from God,” the author wrote.

The author, who was confirmed by the Scene to be a full-time employee of Belmont with a Ph.D, went on to call out university leaders for mingling maskless inside the new Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at its grand opening.

“If our leadership isn’t going to model the appropriate behavior and abide by the one rule, is it any surprise that mask violations abound, or that students and faculty are getting sick?” the author wrote.

Belmont does not require the COVID-19 vaccine, does not mandate testing for students and relies on a voluntary system for reporting positive diagnoses received outside of university health services; these factors led the author of the article to call the university’s weekly report of COVID-19 cases “unrealistic.”

Between Sept. 6 and Sept. 19, Belmont officially reported 83 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff, according to Monday’s most recent data. The university’s total student population is 8,787, and over 3,500 of those live in close quarters in on-campus housing this semester.

Despite a full-fledged return to campus this fall, Belmont no longer offers on-campus quarantine housing for students with COVID-19, and instead requires COVID-positive students to quarantine off-campus at their own expense.

Knowing that she would have to make her own arrangements to quarantine was an issue for sophomore Annabel Del Giorno.

“A lot of students are paying so much to be here and then to be told that they won’t even be provided what they need if they get it — I just thought that was extremely unfair,” she said.

“I don’t think Belmont should have filled all the dorms. I think they should still have quarantine dorms or allow students to stay on campus.”

Quarantine options have been a concern for many Belmont students throughout the semester, and the author of the Scene article echoed the frustration over how protocols have changed since last year. Despite taking their concerns to department leaders first, the author of the Scene never saw those concerns addressed, they wrote.

The Vision was able to communicate via email with the anonymous author with the editor-in-chief of the Scene acting as an intermediary. Through the Scene, the author told the Vision they would like to see the university make a number of changes, including mandating the vaccine, requiring weekly testing for unvaccinated students, re-establishing social distancing on campus and for the school to stop promoting large events where students could be maskless.

“I do not want to risk my job for voicing my opinion and stating facts related to our university. I love teaching what I do and where I do,” said the author via email. ”This isn’t about the institution; it is about a distinct lack of leadership while a deadly virus runs rampant in our community.”

At the time of this article’s publication, the Belmont Office of Communications did not respond to the Vision’s request for a comment on the record.

Dr. Nathan Griffith, chair of Belmont’s faculty senate, also declined to comment on the story, as did many of his colleagues across multiple university departments.

Some Belmont faculty members, however, were willing to speak on the record, including Dr. Bonnie Smith Whitehouse, director of the Honors Program.

While Whitehouse wished the Scene article didn’t have to be anonymous, she agreed with all the sentiments it expressed and would love to see the vaccine required for employees and students, she said.

“Requiring vaccines for the students and employees is the next step for us. And it is a next step for us to really be Christ-centered. It’s a next step for us to be a beacon of knowledge.”

Dr. Daniel Schafer, a professor of history, would also like Belmont to mandate the vaccine.

“The writer makes some very valid points about Belmont’s response to COVID so far,” he said.

Dr. Larry Wacholtz, a professor of music business, said he hadn’t read the article but thinks Belmont is responding to the pandemic in the best way possible.

“I think that they have done a really good job. They’ve offered free vaccination,” he said.

Belmont Health Services administered 95 COVID-19 vaccines at Tuesday’s walk-up clinic and continues to offer vaccines by appointment on Fridays. The university strongly encourages vaccination but does not require it.

But simply offering the vaccine is not enough for some members of the Belmont community. Valerie Quarles, a professor of practice in the Curb College, said she gets upset when she finds out that students aren’t vaccinated and wishes Belmont would mandate immunization.

“They could require vaccinations. Bottom line. I don’t want to dance around it. In my opinion, that’s the only thing that’s going to get us out of this mess,” she said.

Within hours of publication, the Scene article at the center of the conversation made its way onto the cell phones of students, some of whom agreed with the author of the piece.

“I am glad that someone is speaking out,” said junior Darlene Futral. “Especially a faculty member.”

Others echoed support of the author’s comments on off-campus quarantines.

“As a student that lives almost 20 hours away from campus, I think it’s extremely unfair that I won’t be offered any housing if I do get COVID as a high-risk student,” said sophomore Rachel Mitchell.

The author of the Scene article wrote they are worried Belmont’s policies could be dangerous for unvaccinated students.

“Belmont decided that inoculating against a rabidly contagious virus is a matter of personal choice. I am terrified that our unvaccinated students, faculty and staff will end up sick or much worse,” they wrote in the article.

“Our upper administration has chosen to ignore us and to follow the path of Tennessee’s governor, simply hoping the virus goes away.”

Despite writing to the Scene to publicly voice their opinion to the community at large, the writer fears Belmont’s administration will not make any changes.

“I don’t know,” said the author in an email to the Vision. “I tend to think they will stay the course, unfortunately.

PHOTO: Belmont posts signs around campus telling students to mask up indoors. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger.

This article was written by Sarah Maninger. Contributory reporting by Chandler Maynard, Ellie Lewis, Olivia Patterson, Rose Winchester and Connor Dayani.

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