Activist groups form coalition to advocate for safe reopening

Deanna Schwartz, managing editor

In his May 8 letter to the Northeastern community, President Joseph E. Aoun made his plan for the fall semester clear: “It is our intention to reopen our campuses this fall and offer on-site instruction and a residential experience for our students.”

However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook of the fall semester remains uncertain, hinging on many factors such as CDC guidance, Massachusetts state laws, travel restrictions and the ability to reduce residential hall and classroom density.

With these potential barriers in mind, a group of Northeastern students have created a coalition with the goal of protecting the health and well-being of the Northeastern community and broader public.

The Coalition for Affordability, Responsibility, and Equity, referred to as NU CARE, is a coalition of students from the Northeastern Young Democratic Socialists of America, Progressive Student Alliance, Northeastern College Democrats, Sunrise Northeastern, Northeastern for Biden, the Interdisciplinary Women’s Council and the Husky Environmental Action Team.

Joshua Sisman, communications director of both Northeastern College Democrats and Northeastern Young Democratic Socialists of America, or NEU YDSA, said the idea originated in NEU YDSA before other groups were brought on board. Sisman said the coalition is working on involving more groups, such as the College Republicans and non-political groups. 

“We saw that the university had given us this piecemeal plan … saying, ‘We want to have everyone back to campus and stay safe reopening.’ It’s not that we didn’t appreciate that they were trying to have this be safe — we just see that if we’re not putting ourselves there and making demands on the university, we won’t be getting the best possible outcome,” said Sisman, a rising second-year political science and economics major.

In their petition entitled “Does NU CARE?” the coalition establishes seven demands for how the university can reopen “without sacrificing the health and well-being of its students, staff, faculty, and the neighborhoods that surround it.” Over 600 people have signed the petition to date. Their demands include:

  1. Reduced tuition for classes impacted by a transition to online or hybrid learning, including Summer I and Summer II classes
  2. Ability to defer enrollment or take a leave of absence and return in the spring
  3. Protection for students who choose not to live on campus during the fall semester from losing their housing deposit, and releasing first- and second-year students from their obligation to live on campus
  4. Accessibility to personal protective equipment, or PPE, for all students, faculty and staff 
  5. Assurance that any data collected through the NUPD SafeZone app, which Northeastern currently uses for contact tracing, be used only for public health purposes
  6. Transparency and communication regarding NUPD’s role in enforcing social distancing and other health measures on campus
  7. Trust from the university that they will “be upfront about any plans to lease additional off-campus properties for student housing and work to offset any gentrification caused by this”

Blythe Serrano, campus worker justice chair of the Progressive Student Alliance, said the coalition’s goal is to make sure the university keeps the interests of students and workers as a priority. 

“Northeastern has acted very hastily in putting forward a plan to reopen the university, and we want to make sure that they’re keeping the interests of students and workers in mind, as those are the people who really make the university run,” she said.

Jackson Hurley, a rising third-year political science major and president of Northeastern for Biden, said the university’s response to the pandemic in the spring and the sudden move-out showed the “massive effect these changes can have on individual students.” 

Serrano, a rising second-year art and international affairs major, also said that the university’s actions during the spring semester played a role in inspiring the coalition’s actions.

“We saw a need to put forward these demands because Northeastern’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during the spring semester was pretty disappointing. There were a lot of issues, from students being given 72 hours to move off campus and find housing … to faculty and TAs being given very limited time to prepare online classes to dining hall workers being furloughed at the last minute and not being given proper pay,” she said. 

Serrano said she believes that the seventh demand addressing gentrification is the most important and that Northeastern has not acknowledged its impact on surrounding communities in the past.

“We’re worried that with them expanding housing to allow students to socially distance and using the argument that [the university is] facing financial hardship, they will do even less to give back to the community that they’re living in.”

Hurley said he finds the fourth demand, which calls for adequate PPE to be available to all students, faculty and staff, to be the most important.

“[Essential workers] play an incredibly important role in the structure of our community …  and if they’re not being given the protective gear that they need in order to stay safe and keep the students safe, then it’s a failure by the university,” Hurley said. “[This is] ultimately a public health crisis, and if you’re not protecting people from a disease and from the danger at hand, then there’s no reason that we should be coming back to campus.” 

Hurley also felt the university has lacked communication with students, mentioning President Aoun’s interview on CNN, where Aoun shared that 2,000 new beds have been secured for students. 

“That’s obviously fantastic, but it hasn’t been disclosed to students at all. We haven’t been told what the plans are, and we’re expected to be back there in three months,” Hurley said.

However, some students believe that the coalition is too quick to judge the university. On the university’s reopening page, it states that “the plan for student re-entry in the fall is underway and will be shared in the coming weeks.”

Reddit user Zashiony wrote in a comment on the Northeastern subreddit, “They told you when the information is coming; just hold tight for a bit. A lot has to go into reopening such a large university to make sure everyone stays healthy.”

Zashiony did not respond to an interview request from The News. Northeastern Media Relations also did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the coalition and petition. 

Sisman said that, with the exception of Reddit, they have seen an overwhelmingly positive response to the petition. 

“Students are very interested in it because it’s not really a political issue, even if it’s initially being driven by [political] groups … This is something that speaks directly to students. Every student has a financial stake in this and a health stake. It’s been quite amazing to see how well it’s doing,” Sisman said.

Hurley also emphasized that this is something that impacts all students. 

“There’s something in one of these seven points that speaks to something someone’s going through right now, something someone’s concerned about right now. As we continue to push for this, the support’s only going to continue to go up.”