Updated: Jul 13, 2022
“What do we want? COVID housing! When do we want it? Now!”
Voices protesting Belmont’s COVID-19 policies, led by sophomores Natalie Schilling and
Caroline Shutley, filled the streets Wednesday as a group of students marched up 15th Avenue to the steps of the Janet Ayers Academic Center.
Schilling and Shutley organized the protest seeking enforcement of Belmont’s campus-wide indoor mask-wearing as well as the reinstatement of on-campus quarantine housing for students who test positive for COVID-19.
Unlike last year at Belmont, those diagnosed with COVID-19 must find self-isolation arrangements off campus — whether that means driving home, staying with a friend or getting a hotel room for the required minimum of 10 or 14 days, depending on vaccination status.
“Paying for housing in an Airbnb or a hotel is a really big expense,” Shutley said. “And then the other option is to ask somebody around you, a friend or a family member, to house a sick person. It’s not a system that’s going to work and that’s going to encourage people to stay getting tested and catch those outbreaks before they even are able to happen.”
Natalie Schilling (left) and Caroline Shutley lead student protesters down Wedgewood Avenue near Belmont’s campus, Nov. 10. Belmont Vision / Jenna Roberts.
Belmont told students in the summer that they would need to prepare a plan for quarantining off-campus if they tested positive.
“Given that the vaccine was widely available, Belmont made it a priority in early spring to make in-person living and learning happen, and all Belmont housing was reserved by current students at that time for the fall semester,” said a university representative in a statement.
“We worked with a nearby partner to secure transitional and emergency housing for students who are unable to access any other option for their isolation or quarantine. That housing has been made available for any student without another option,” the representative said.
Belmont continues to offer free, voluntary vaccines and report COVID-19 campus data and on a weekly basis.
The crowd of about two dozen students heard speeches from Schilling, Shutley and Dr. Katrina Green, an emergency medicine doctor who treated patients during the pandemic.
Green heard about the protest through Protect My Care, a group of Tennessee medical professionals working to maintain open and safe schools.
“Tennessee is still under 50% fully vaccinated. That means we cannot let our guard down yet. We are on the cusp of winter, temperatures are cooling and we’ll all soon be forced indoors. We must continue mitigation factors that we know work, which are wearing a mask and social distancing,” Green said.
“I agree that Belmont and other universities should protect their students by providing dedicated housing to those who need to isolate and quarantine.”
At the beginning of the fall semester, the university did away with its outdoor mask mandate, but still requires masks for everybody while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
“All individuals on Belmont’s campus are required to wear masks when indoors, a policy that’s been in place — and broadly and frequently communicated — since Aug. 10,” said the university statement.
“In addition, all employees have been told that they are empowered to enforce this mandate at any time, and any student or employee who refuses to comply would be considered in violation of the campus’ code of conduct.”
Regardless of the protocols, it’s not uncommon to see students, and even faculty, partially or fully unmasked while walking the halls.
“There’s a lot of people not wearing their masks when they’re supposed to. I just feel like it’s very important to make it known that we are not happy with this and stuff needs to change if we want to get out of this,” said Carter Rutkoski, a student who attended the protest.
But not everyone in the Belmont community agrees with the protest’s push, like student Boyer Gibson, a music major who said masks do more harm than good when it comes to performing.
Gibson plays the saxophone at Belmont and is required to wear a special mask as well as cover the bell of his instrument while performing.
“Whoever’s making these mandates don’t understand what’s going on in person. … Air doesn’t come out of the bell of a saxophone so why am I putting a cover over the bell?” Gibson said.
“I think music is the biggest thing getting hurt because playing with a mask on really isn’t easy, and it’s making us sound not up to where we should be at the Belmont University standard.”
The university has not announced any changes to its COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming spring semester, but Schilling and Shutley are eager for change and hope to engage university administrators in private meetings, they told Channel 4 News.
But for now, they are taking to the streets to have their voices heard.
“Hey hey, ho ho, bad COVID plans have got to go!” they shouted.
PHOTO: Student protesters carried signs and marched along several public roads adjacent to Belmont’s campus, Nov. 10. Belmont Vision / Jenna Roberts
This article was written by Sarah Maninger. Contributory reporting by Gus Sneh and Connor Daryani