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SIU will not be informing the public of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus; RAs told to keep quiet
“There are zero precautions in place that keep us safe."
August 19, 2020
Editor’s Note: The identities of some of the sources in this story are anonymous because the resident assistants involved feared retaliation and losing their jobs.
Updated Aug. 21 11:37 a.m. to fix a typo
SIU refuses to release the numbers of COVID-19 cases on campus and student employees in housing have been told they could lose their jobs if they tell anyone about cases, according to resident assistants.
University spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said any positive cases associated with the university are reported by the Jackson County Health Department. The university will not report these cases independently, she said.
No federal or state law prevents the university from releasing the information, experts say, and other Illinois and national universities are releasing their case counts.
When the Jackson County Health Department sends out a release regarding the case count for the day, it does not specify location or whether the person attends SIU or lives in the dorms.
“The health department is the official, accurate source for reporting, and the university does not report cases independently in order to protect the privacy of students and employees. We expect all staff to respect these privacy rights,” Goldsmith said.
But in March 2020, the Department of Education developed new Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines allowing schools to release general information on cases as long as no personally identifiable information is disclosed. So FERPA does not bar the release of the number of cases, according to the authoritative government interpretation.
Under these new guidelines, universities are allowed to say how many cases they have on campus, inform the roommate of someone who tests positive for COVID-19, or say there was an outbreak in a certain dorm.
Other universities are announcing outbreaks on their campuses, including the University of Illinois Springfield, Eastern Illinois University, Missouri State University and the University of Kentucky, which all keep a running total of positive cases on their websites.
(See more: University of Kentucky).
(See more: Eastern Illinois University).
(See more: University of Illinois Springfield).
(See more: Missouri State University ).
The Daily Egyptian reached out to Goldsmith again and asked her to comment on why the university was not releasing the numbers even though other universities are and it does not violate HIPAA or FERPA .
Goldsmith said it would be too easy to personally identify the individual who tested positive if their residence hall was named.
The DE asked why the university would not release general numbers of how many positive cases of COVID-19 occurred on campus, Goldsmith said she already answered that.
“We have protocols in place to ensure that students, faculty and staff have the personalized information they need to stay safe,” Goldsmith said. “The health department is the only official, accurate source for COVID-19 cases in Jackson County; and we have an obligation to protect privacy.”
Student employees who work for university housing were instructed not to tell students about COVID-19 cases on campus unless they specifically ask, according to screenshots notes from an RA leaked to the Daily Egyptian and corroborated by two former housing employees and five current RAs.
On Aug. 9, three RAs bumped into someone on their rounds who said they were delivering something to a COVID-19 patient on the first floor of Cedar Hall at Wall and Grand.The RAs immediately went to their supervisor to confirm this because they were upset that no one had informed them of the positive cases, according to the resident assistant in the screenshots.
An emergency staff meeting was called at 10 that evening and the staff members were told they might lose their jobs if they told anyone that there was a COVID positive student in the building, according to the RA.
“We were really upset because it was kept a secret from us and people were literally doing rounds on that floor,” the RA said. “Even though the patient had been moved into the building no signage had been put up or any sort of blocking off had been done in that area.”
The RAs were told to keep the case a secret, the RA said.
In the morning they had another staff meeting where they were told the building doesn’t recirculate air and that other residents/RAs living in the building were not at an increased risk of contracting the virus.
The RA said at this meeting, they were told that the case is “not a secret” but “don’t tell a bunch of people.”
“I was extremely concerned just because of how they seemed to be sliding it under the rug and threatening us if we told anyone,” the RA said.
Another anonymous RA, who we will refer to as Jane, said Housing made sure to tell RAs they would be punished if they told any student on their floor if a resident tested positive with COVID-19, including their suitemate.
“They didn’t give us a straight answer about how to go about talking to our residents,” Jane said. “They kind of just said ‘don’t talk about it, cuz if we hear that you’ve been talking about it, then you’re putting your job at risk. You’re gonna get housing and yourself in trouble.’”
Three RAs told the Daily Egyptian that students in quarantine are instructed to put chairs in front of their doors. Jane said they are not allowed to tell any other residents what the chairs mean.
RAs are also being instructed to sign up for shifts to deliver meals to isolated or quarantining students, Jane said.
“There are zero precautions in place that keep us safe,” Jane said.
Another RA who we will identify as Mary, said there is little organization in housing’s rules for staff regarding COVID-19.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been given a complete training on all of the rules,” Mary said. “It’s just kind of something they throw a few rules at us, and then a few days later they throw a few new ones. There’s really no organization here.”
SIU’s Director of Housing, Jon Shaffer, said students’ medical information is protected by HIPAA. Sharing such personal information would be inappropriate.
If there is no personally identifiable information, schools are not violating FERPA or HIPAA by providing general information on cases, according to the Student Press Law Center.
(See more: Student Press Law Center).
“The university has worked with the Jackson County Health Department and other resources to develop plans to isolate and care for infected students while protecting well students,” Shaffer said. “Such protections include implementing policies like the mask policy and limiting group sizes while promoting social distancing, good hygiene, etc.”
The DE asked if the residents of Cedar Hall have been notified of the cases in their building since these meetings; Shaffer would not answer.
“We instruct all of our staff that they are not to share students’ personal information nor act as a spokesperson for University Housing,” Shaffer said. “If approached by the media to comment on Housing concerns, RAs are instructed to refer up to their supervisory team or to University Communications.”
Shaffer said RAs, like all students, are welcome to exercise their right to free speech as individuals, but they are not permitted to share privileged information or information they would only know due to being an RA.
“RAs, as role models, are expected to promote a positive attitude about living on campus. We would not expect to hear disparaging comments about Housing from RAs in any format other than speaking with their supervisory team in an appropriate time and place,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said he was not part of the Aug. 9 meeting.
“In a discussion concerning the university’s care of sick students, the Wall & Grand staff would have been reminded of their obligation to maintain the privacy of fellow students under the protections of HIPAA, FERPA and their expectations,” Shaffer said. “All of our staff know that a failure to follow any aspect of their training and expectations could have repercussions, including being separated from their position depending on the severity of the incident.”
Learning about FERPA and what it covers is a big portion of an RA’s training, but former RAs say SIU Housing misuses the federal policy to excuse lack of communication.
“Housing always has had issues with communicating with their RAs and [Academic Peer Advisers],” Phynix Huhn-Simmons, a former RA at Wall and Grand, said. “There was always something that we didn’t know about, and we had to find out about. And that is something so serious right now because of the death toll that can happen in such a short amount of time.”
Huhn-Simmons said she had several problems with being an RA where she wasn’t allowed to go to the media because of housing, despite her problems having nothing to do with students or personal information.
“There’s no reason for RAs and APAs to not talk about the problems they have as employees besides to silence them,” Huhn-Simmons said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently published an article stating that public universities cannot prohibit student employees from speaking to the media entirely.
Reports say RAs at Louisiana State University and the University of Missouri have received disciplinary actions for speaking to the media about COVID on their campuses, FIRE said.
According to FIRE, the First Amendment protects students’ rights to comment as private individuals despite their employment as representatives of a university and their access to privileged information.
Anna Wilcoxen, the President of SIU’s Graduate Assistants United group, said they have been urging the university to release case counts and information to students and instructors.
“GAU has consistently encouraged the administration to consider various methods for alerting students and instructors of covid cases on campus, including a weekly digest of new cases or the percentage of increases/decreases in local cases,” Wilcoxen said.
It is GAU’s position that alerting the campus community to cases happening on our campus is vital to maintaining a safe and healthy work environment. However, it is also GAU’s understanding that at this time, there is no such plan to alert students, staff, or instructors about cases on campus, Wilcoxen said.
The SIU Faculty Association released a statement to the Daily Egyptian and said while they understand privacy, they are very concerned about the lack of notification to faculty.
“We also fear that SIU is placing undue burden on students to self-report and to communicate health issues themselves,” the Faculty Association, the union for tenure and tenure-track faculty said. “Instructors are hearing directly from some students, and before classes even began on Monday, some received notifications from the University that students would be absent for 14 days.”
The union’s statement said a lack of testing and SIU’s reliance on the Jackson County Health Department for notification and tracing is problematic.
“Not all commuters (employees or students) reside in Jackson County and simply incorporating SIU case numbers in the Jackson County count does not provide a true reflection of SIU’s status re: COVID-19,” the FA said. “Budgetary and staffing considerations aside, we hope SIU will reassess procedures to hasten timely notifications.”
Editor in Chief Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox.
River Region Evening Edition Executive Producer Danny Connolly can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DConnollyTV.
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