Mason Library and non-classroom facilities to remain closed indefinitely

By Zachary Wheeler

According to the latest comments from university leadership, SAIS’ Mason library and other non-classroom auxiliary facilities will remain closed indefinitely pending improvements in the local public health environment. SAIS’ decision to keep the library closed contrasts with the decisions of peer DC institutions and the Homewood campus.

On January 8, 2021, Dean Eliot Cohen wrote to students with an outline for the resumption of SAIS operations in the coming spring semester. While the letter stated that eating and common areas within SAIS would be closed, it noted that “research and library facilities had been de-densified,” implying that such facilities would be available for student use. However, just one week later, the official spring reopening information affirmed that research and library facilities would be unavailable. The reopening information did not specify a reason for the change or whether such facilities would reopen pending changes in the DC public health environment.

Two months later, these facilities remain closed amidst rising student requests for available study spaces. Several SAIS students have recently written to the university asking for the reopening of the library and provided administrators with information on alternative solutions to establishing student studying spaces undertaken by peer institutions.

At Georgetown University, the primary library is open to undergraduate and graduate students with seat reservations and an all-clear on the student COVID-19 symptoms-tracking app. The university’s smaller Blommer Science library is also available for graduate student use under the same conditions. Students using the library facilities are required to follow proper COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Moreover, Georgetown is providing all students with the option of an all-expense-paid membership to WeWork. Students may use this WeWork membership to access clean study spaces in any of WeWork’s 800+ global locations. 

At George Washington University, all four of its student libraries are in operation for the spring semester, allowing students to utilize study spaces with a reservation and proper COVID-19 protocols. At Johns Hopkins University’s own Homewood campus, the Milton S. Eisenhower Library and Hutzler reading room are open to all students, facilitated by an extensive cleaning schedule by Homewood staff.

According to Heather Stalfort, Johns Hopkins University’s Director of Communications for the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums, no cases of COVID-19, to the university’s knowledge, have been linked to Homewood’s open libraries. 

Despite peer institutions opening libraries and auxiliary facilities for student access this semester, SAIS leadership has held steady on its January 15th decision to keep its facilities closed.

In recent written correspondence with The SAIS Observer, SAIS leadership responded to questions regarding the facilities’ continued closures by stating that “[their] primary and highest concern is the health, safety, and well-being of our SAIS community, beginning with our students.” However, they noted that they hope to increase in-person capacity “as the public health situation warrants,” but gave no metrics nor timeline as to when such decisions might be made. SAIS leadership further stated that while it has engaged with peer institutions and Hopkins on the matter, their decision to keep the SAIS library and non-classroom auxiliary facilities closed was made through a self-assessment of their facilities’ size and capacity, which is “drastically” different from peer institutions.

The library and other non-classroom auxiliary facilities have been met with dismay by some SAIS students. In an interview with The SAIS Observer, one student noted that their apartment’s small size and lack of separate workspace made studying at home difficult. Another student cited loud roommates and life distractions as impeding their ability to complete coursework. These troubles, they noted, would be alleviated through school provided study-space, whether at the library or through alternative solutions. Moreover, students expressed that the lack of open non-classroom facilities hindered a sense of being part of a graduate school community. 

A student at SAIS Bologna said that she felt the library should be opened given that students have complied with all COVID-19 health instructions and mandatory testing. Moreover, she wrote that the school has not provided adequate support for students with library assistant jobs, who are now “void of any income.” While other student jobs have been given options for online work, she wrote that “the library hasn’t offered any assistance” to library assistants who depended on their job for basic needs at SAIS.

In a statement provided to The SAIS Observer, one student wrote “it is unfortunate that SAIS has been unwilling to open the library with COVID-19 protocols for the benefit of the student’s postgraduate experience as have other universities in the area or offered a viable alternative solution, such as Georgetown did with WeWork memberships.”

As the public health environment in Washington D.C. continues to improve through falling COVID-19 infections and rising vaccinations, likely, calls by students for the opening of the SAIS library and its auxiliary facilities will continue to rise. How the university will respond to these requests, however, remains unseen. 

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