Students call for end of no-guest policy

Chandler Gibson • Editor-in-Chief

A student-led petition calling for the end of Housing’s No-Guest Policy has collected over 500 signatures, representing nearly a third of total possible students living on campus.

Mickey Meyer, an Information Technology senior at The University of Texas at Tyler, started the petition, titled “No Guest Policy = No Love” to call attention to what he describes in his petition as UT Tyler’s “draconian” COVID-19 restrictions.

“I have been going here for 4 years and know a lot of people on campus and have heard a lot of people's mental health deteriorating because of the isolation this policy causes,” Meyer said in an email.

Meyer, who lives at Liberty Landing but is from El Dorado Hills, CA (a suburb of Sacramento), has family that suffers from mental health struggles, informing his decision to start the petition.

“I had loved on campus housing because I felt safe, felt like I was in a community, and is so close to campus,” Meyer said. “When COVID-19 happened, two of those things fell away. Not being able to have my support system in my home has been detrimental to my mental health, and the fear of my home being taken away if I violate this policy has added onto the stress.”

“There are also people I see calling other people out for having their boyfriends, girlfriends and sometimes even their husbands and wives over,” Meyer said. “What kind of community can there be if you are scared that your neighbors will rat you out if you have a friend over?”

The first time Meyer heard about the No-Guest Policy was when he returned to campus in Fall 2020.

“I felt like the administration was doing its best to cover themselves by not being liable for COVID-19 related issues, but it was the hardest on all of the students' mental health,” Meyer said. “I understand that the University wants to not put people in danger of a life threatening disease, but treating the student body like they are stupid will only get a stupid outcome. If you look at the petitions’ reasons for signing, there is story after story of the student [body’s] worsening mental health, and treating them like they don’t have any responsibility when it comes to being COVID-conscious doesn’t help. At the end of the day, I want everyone to know how bad this policy is towards mental health because I see people suffering in silence and it shouldn’t take a crisis situation to wake up the people who implemented this rule.”

In the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 Return Procedures documents, there are sections on Student Housing that prohibit visitation (including parents) and guests. While not expressly explained in the Return Procedures documents from either semester, a mass email to students from Director of Residence Life, Scott Hendershot defines a guest as: “any person not assigned to that specific room/apartment.”

Therefore, for students in a four-bedroom, only those four are allowed inside. For students in one-bedrooms and efficiencies, only they are allowed in theirs.

According to Hendershot and Vice President for Student Success, Ona Tolliver, UT Tyler’s No-Guest Policy was decided by the Reboot Task Force and UT Tyler’s former president, Dr. Michael Tidwell.

“Most [CDC] guidance recommended dramatically reducing facility occupancy,” Tolliver said in an email. “While many other institutions of higher education followed that recommendation, UT Tyler chose to provide an environment that would allow new and current students an opportunity to have as close to a traditional experience as possible while promoting safety. The ‘no-guest policy’ is one of the many tools UT Tyler enlisted to support our students in their desire to have in-person classes and reside on campus. UT Tyler is still one of the few campuses who have continued to have a 100% occupancy. This policy and other steps have been key to providing the best experience possible while observing safety measures.”

Meyer is not the only student struggling with the isolation of the pandemic. Nicole Popp is a sophomore Psychology major at UT Tyler, and currently lives at Victory Village.

“I mean, most of their reasoning against it was that other schools are doing it, so we want to do it,” Popp said. “But the problem there is that most of their on-campus housing is dorms. When you have two beds in the same room, you definitely don’t want people coming in there. When you all have your own room, I don’t see why it's so much of a problem. You can have one person over in your own room. Obviously five people, that’s a problem. Apartment complexes aren’t saying you can’t have guests. That’s their choice, because it’s their home.”

Victory Village is a student apartment complex located more than half a mile away from UT Tyler, and only accessible via car (or bike, technically) from University Blvd. Since none of the on-campus housing options allow visitation, Popp is essentially cut off from the rest of the campus.

“I spent my first year here at O-Hall; really close with a lot of people,” Popp said. “I became best friends with my roommate there, and then at the beginning of sophomore year I moved here to Victory Village. I was originally going to be moving here with three of my friends, but then two of them decided to live off campus, so I got two random roommates. One of them I just happen to know from a club, The Rolling Patriots Guild.”

The Rolling Patriots Guild is a student organization of tabletop game enthusiasts (Dungeons & Dragons, etc.)

With two randomly-assigned roommates, Popp’s support system during a global pandemic and forced social isolation was fragmented.

“I have anxiety and depression, and I know a lot of people in our generation do,” Popp said. “There are times when I need somebody there who understands me to just be there for me, and we can’t have that, because they’re not allowed to come over. Especially with relationships, because, like, if I could have my boyfriend here, I would feel a lot better if I was having a panic attack. Obviously I’m not going to drive over to his place if I’m having a panic attack. But he can’t come over here, either.”

Popp’s boyfriend goes to Tyler Junior College. She can go over to his residence, she explained, but he is not allowed to come to her apartment. The isolation resulting from the need to social distance has been a common theme during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Research shows the level of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity,” wrote the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI published their Effects of COVID-19 related Social Isolation on the Mental Health of Racialized Communities information in 2020. “Additionally, loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”

Popp had been involved in a previous petition to overturn the policy, unrelated to Meyer’s, during last semester: Fall 2020. She was not sure who had started it, but she advocated heavily on its behalf.

“I was mostly getting together with people, talking to people at Student Government, getting their say, and stuff like that, trying to get my friends to spread the word,” Popp said. “I was going to start [another] petition, but when [the University] told me no, I didn’t know what to do.”

Popp had hit a wall. She felt shut down. UT Tyler, she ventured, had stopped caring.

“They basically said ‘we don’t want to listen to you,’” Popp said. “I had sent an email out to Scott Hendershot and President Tidwell, and Hendershot basically told me ‘I can’t do anything about this,’ and I said ‘who can?’ and he said ‘oh, the COVID response team can.’ He sent me their email, I emailed them, and they said ‘oh, yeah, we’ll talk to you, we’ll discuss it with you,’ and then they just sent me a guy to tell me no. And he gave me some options: to cancel my housing contract, to get on a board of people over, like, Victory Village or something, but that’s … not going to change the guest policy. That’s my main goal.”

The person sent to talk to Popp about the issue was Shane-Justin Nu’uhiwa, a Student Conduct and Intervention Officer. His role has changed, due to a restructure in the Judicial Affairs department (now called Student Conduct and Intervention), therefore he was unable to discuss the matter with Popp and students like her.

“Basically all I got was that they can cancel my housing contract, and I can go to counseling,” Popp said. “I’m already in counseling, and I told them that in my initial email - I go to a counselor every week - but that’s not going to fix everything. That’s not how it works. They pretty much just told me to get more counseling [anyway].”

While Popp’s petition has fizzled out, Meyer’s appears to be gaining momentum.

“I have talked to various people in housing and in the administration about this policy and most have encouraged me, but some don’t see the mental health crisis as much of an imminent threat as the COVID-crisis,” Meyer said. “They think that treating the symptoms is enough with more ‘mental health awareness’ and ‘increasing visibility of resources’ when we should be treating the root of the problem which is this policy. I’m not asking them to even change it by much, but just to change it to a one-guest policy would dramatically increase the mental health of the student body. Detractors to this argument say ‘this policy is only temporary’ but what is temporary when we are almost a year into this? How can you tell that to a student with severe depression who just wants to have a friend over?”

Meyer goes on to explain that he has been communicating with Housing intermittently, and that most people he has spoken to have encouraged him. He noted that since cases were few (around 30 during this interaction, and 19 during the writing of this story), Housing would likely be more open to amending the rule in response to student outcry.

Hendershot, on the other hand, has a different answer to amending and overturning the policy.

“No, because we have determined that this is the best way to manage the spread of the [COVID-19] on our campus,” Hendershot said in an email. “However, I gladly welcome conversations with students regarding their concerns.”

In response to Meyer’s petition, students have posted testimonies about why they have signed, and what they hope to accomplish with an amendment or an overturn of the rule.

“I’m signing because I believe that there is a way to implement a safe protocol to allow guests in our campus apartments and dorms” UT Tyler student Deonne Cartwright said. “By not allowing guests, you’re forcing students to seek companionship outside of their homes and in public settings, in turn, increasing their exposure. By forcing students to convene on campus, you’re also exposing people that are required to be in that building (sodexo workers, janitorial workers, staff, faculty, and other students). Students are still going out and working around other people and coming to an in person lecture the next morning. Some exposure is inevitable, but there is a way to allow necessary socializing and companionship while keeping our students and campus safe!”

The concerns of coming into possibly-infectious contact with on-campus contact with university faculty, staff, workers and strangers is common among the students’ testimony, and addressed by Hendershot in an interview.

“They are not strangers, they are employees of UT Tyler or contractors that have been vetted by the university,” Hendershot said. “This is just a process necessary to maintain the University properties and they only enter when absolutely necessary. All staff are required to be wearing proper CDC recommended personal protective equipment to promote safety and health.”

The housing departments of other schools in The University of Texas System have had different approaches to the social distancing needs of their schools.

The University of Texas at Dallas, for example, allows pre-approved guests and visitation, as long as the guests are UTD students. UT Arlington and UT San Antonio (their policies are essentially copied-and-pasted, except for UTA’s different policies for residence halls and apartments) do not allow guests during this phase of their reopening plan, but plan to allow it in another stage. UT Austin does not allow guests/visitation in their on-campus residence halls, but do in their recently-purchased campus apartments, 2400 Nueces. In fact, not only does 2400 Nueces allow guests, it allows overnight visitation for up to 3 days at a time. UT Permian Basin and UT El Paso are the most similar to UT Tyler, forming students into Housing “Pods” that only interact with one another in indoor settings.

UT Rio Grande Valley, however, has an interesting approach to visitation. While their visitation is limited, they allow students to have guests and visitors from the same housing facility. For example, if this was implemented at UT Tyler, it would allow O-Hall residents to interact relatively freely with other residents of O-Hall; Liberty Landing residents to do so with other Liberty Landing residents, and so on.

“The policy should change to at least just a one guest per resident so that people can feel safe in their home without being scared that their home will be taken away from them by a draconian policy,” reads Meyer’s petition.

It is closest to the UTD plan, which allows visitors that equal one more than the assigned occupancy of the room. In studios and one-bedrooms, there can be two people; in two-bedrooms, there can be three; so on.

“The petition is successful in getting people talking and having people share their stories about how the policy has hurt them,” Meyer said. “It’s my job, the job of the newspaper, and anyone who calls themselves a mental health advocate to elevate their stories so that the University understands how serious the mental health problem is on campus.”

According to Tolliver, student mental health and wellbeing is and has always been a priority.

“We believe that providing hybrid courses and allowing 100% occupancy in our residence halls offered students a degree of normalcy in what had been a very abrupt and challenging year,” Tolliver said. “The Division of Student Success expanded numerous existing services and resources to support students including student counseling, case management and the CARE Team. In addition, new initiatives were also launched such as a resiliency and outreach team that reached out to students to determine how we might address questions or concerns, welfare and wellness outreach, which is a collaboration with the School of Nursing, student counseling and the Office of the Dean of Students to support students’ physical and mental health, and regular follow up by our case management team and student accessibility staff. Fortunately several tools were in place to support telehealth, thereby allowing students to have consistent access to counselors. We understand that these are difficult times and continue to communicate and educate our campus community on the available resources while working to support our students overall wellbeing.”

While UT Tyler Housing has not made any public moves to overturn or amend the No-Guest Policy, Meyer’s petition continues to gain traction. He recently asked for student testimonies about how the policy has affected them, some of which have been included in a gallery attached to this story.

A link to Meyer’s petition can be found here. For immediate assistance with mental health and counseling issues, call the 24/7 Crisis Hotline: 903-566-7254.