RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — With COVID-19 still spreading in the City of Richmond and throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia at a rapid rate, members of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) community are calling for an alternative to in-person learning.

Dozens of students gathered at Park Plaza Wednesday morning to show their support for widespread hybrid learning options for the 2022 spring semester.

Event organizer Gian Tigreros told 8News that with medication that weakens his immune system and social distancing not always possible, he doesn’t feel safe in his classes.

“A lot of people are in similar situations,” he said. “Either they’re immunocompromised, or their girlfriend has a low immune system, they live together, or they’re a nanny for a small 3-year-old, and they just don’t want to take the risk, and they shouldn’t be forced to take the risk if they don’t want to.”

In addition to the in-person “walkout” on campus, an online petition has been circulating, with roughly 900 signatures as of 5:15 p.m. Wednesday.

“I hope we get the hybrid option,” Tigreros said. “I hope they implement something that they have before, which is if you get COVID, you get a number of days excused absence, which makes sense because no one wants you to go to class if you’re feeling poorly, if you are still contagious. We hope that the add/drop deadline gets to a week after they give us the hybrid option, that way people can adjust their classes as they see fit.”

8News reached out to VCU for comment on the petition and received the following response:

VCU makes decisions about operational changes based on the guidance of its Public Health Response Team. The PHRT considers the prevalence of COVID 19 on campus and in the community, the availability of testing, available hospital space in the region and the availability of space on campus for student isolation and quarantine. It is also important to note that the overwhelming majority of our community is vaccinated. As of last month, 95.4% of VCU’s student population and 97.2% of VCU’s employee population reported vaccinations to the university.

Although VCU does offer courses online, and roughly 15% of its class offerings are hybrid this semester, students and faculty at Wednesday’s protest argue that’s not sufficient.

“The hybrid option would be great because kids could decide when they feel safe to go to class or not,” Tigreros said. “Most of my classes, I could definitely do over Zoom, virtually. It’s history classes and stuff like that. I have one class that meets an hour a week that’s welding, so you can’t really do welding over Zoom.”

Others at the protest, including students and staff, told 8News that returning to in-person learning when Virginia has seen more COVID-19 hospitalizations during several days in January than at any other point during the coronavirus pandemic feels forced.

“As a junior, I saw pre-COVID, and now, I’m seeing us return too quickly and leave a lot of people behind, who I care about a lot, and just for the sake of normalcy, which is not something that we are anywhere close to getting to,” one student said.

According to VCU’s website, masking indoors has been reinstated throughout the university and remains in effect for health system facilities. Although there are no longer physical distancing requirements or density restrictions in campus spaces, masks are also required at outdoor events with more than 50 people or where physical distancing of six feet or more is not possible.

The university previously offered more robust hybrid learning options, and had a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for faculty and staff, which has since been lifted.

“It’s a lot of mixed messaging,” one faculty member at the protest said. “It puts faculty in a weird position, too, because I don’t want to surveil or police my students. But I do want safety for all.”

Excluding courses where students work independently with their instructor, VCU is offering 51% of courses face-to-face, according to a spokesperson for the university. Of the 5,465 total courses being offered this semester, 17% are direct instruction, which is a course that involves individualized direct supervision or guidance.

“People could make the choice for themselves, and that’s what we’re really trying to push — individual choice when it comes to our health,” Tigreros said. “If we don’t feel safe going to class, we shouldn’t be forced to go to class in person.”

For now, he said that supporters of these demands are calling for change during the 2022 spring semester, which is already underway. However, Tigreros said that if coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to climb, the university should consider further implementation.

“We’re requesting hybrid options for our safety,” he said. “It’s not a joke. It’s not a game. People are dying, and they should really listen to us and give us the opportunity that we need to learn in a safe environment.”

Just hours after the “walkout” at VCU, Virginia State University (VSU) announced its return to in-person instruction on campus, beginning Monday, Jan. 31. This comes after VSU announced earlier this month that, in an effort to ensure the health and safety of its community, all classes would convert to virtual or “hyflex” instruction for the first two weeks of the semester.