SIU’s failure to inform students of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus, and its lack of communication, planning and transparency during the pandemic, might mean that some students who are returning to campus this fall may not be alive to graduate.
The university exhibits this lack of preparedness by not having a solid testing plan in place, not releasing the locations of active COVID-19 cases, failing to communicate its plans to faculty members and actively encouraging students in Carbondale to come to campus.
There is also no clear person in charge of SIU’s COVID-19 plan, and the university’s responses have been confusing.
The spokesperson of the university tells us decisions are made at the chancellor level, the chancellor and provost said plans are made by the emergency operating committee (EOC), DPS Chief Benjamin Newman, who is on the EOC and is SIU’s head emergency management official, told us to contact the School of Medicine for more information about basic pros and cons of temperature checks.
There is no accountability.
Originally, SIU was not going to inform the public of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. It cited privacy concerns as the reason and refused to even release general numbers.
(See more: SIU will not be informing the public of COVID-19 outbreaks RAs told to keep quiet).
Although SIU eventually reversed its decision, the university will only provide one weekly generic update.
(See more: SIU reverses decision, decides to inform the public of case numbers).
These weekly updates provide a false sense of security. The statistics published do not show every positive case on or off campus, as it is optional for students, faculty and staff who test positive for COVID to report that they work at or attend the university. Currently, the updates do not disclose any locations or the number of students in quarantine.
Additionally, anyone not living in Jackson County will not be included in the SIU count if they test positive for the virus and inform the university.
If students, faculty and staff are not informed about potential outbreaks on campus, they may not know to get tested. SIU’s administration says that the Jackson County Health Department will handle contact tracing, but how much can we actually trust this considering there is no requirement to report if the sick person is a student, faculty or staff member at SIU?
There are too many “what ifs?” and “will theys?” involved with contact tracing.
Students, faculty and staff at high risk for the virus should be as informed as possible about any cases on campus. If there are risks for a student to be exposed to the virus, all students should be informed.
In March 2020, The Department of Education developed new Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines allowing schools to release general information on cases.
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.
SIU said it will disclose locations as mandated by the Clery Act and health department, but for the most part it will be relying on contact tracing and telling certain individuals but not everyone who lives in a residence hall.
SIU needs to do more
The university has implemented a hodgepodge of different policies and communication has been slow, according to Sam Pavel, the vice president of the Faculty Association, the union for tenured and tenure-track faculty.
“We’ve already had a week of class and the guidelines were just coming out the week of class,” Pavel said.
SIU has also encouraged students to be on campus. The university has promoted extracurricular on-campus activities, such as bowling and visiting the University Museum, and also has encouraged students with online classes to do classwork in campus buildings.
Through Saluki Cares, SIU students can apply to receive technology assistance in the form of wireless hotspots if they do not have internet access. However, at this time, this assistance is only being offered to students who are not living in Carbondale; other students are expected to come to campus to attend their online classes.
Even though they are actively encouraging students to come to campus, SIU does not have an adequate testing plan in place to ensure that these students stay safe and don’t spread the virus.
SIU’s COVID-19 fall 2020 plan states a comprehensive testing and tracing plan would be in place by the start of the semester. However, with the exception of athletics, there is no comprehensive plan in place and SIU simply suggests that students get tested.
At other universities, including University of Illinois, Illinois State and University of Kentucky, students are either offered free testing or required to get tested to attend classes or live on campus.
A student attending classes at U of I can walk into a classroom assured every student in the room has tested negative for COVID-19 twice that week. A student at SIU doesn’t even know if their classmates have been tested at all.
Chancellor Austin Lane said this lack of testing is the result of us being “in a much better situation” and a lack of resources.
However the university is not actively trying to copy what U of I is doing and is instead relying on the already overworked Jackson County Health Department for testing.
Even though administrators were aware SIU did not have adequate testing available, they failed to push for all classes that could be conducted virtually to be moved online.
It is naive to think COVID-19 is skipping our campus or that we have as low of a positivity rate as the university’s case count suggests when other schools are already shutting down for the semester due to the influx of positive results.
COVID-19 has an incubation period. Without testing, we can’t catch it early and more of us could have it than we realize.
We need more than platitudes, meaningless messages that say “we are all in this together” and cute Saluki cartoons telling us to wear masks. We need communication and a solid plan based on science and common sense.
Withholding information concerning the coronavirus from students and faculty endangers them and contradicts the idea of keeping individuals on campus safe and protected.
Many faculty and staff members are older and at high risk. SIU owes them the courtesy of reporting outbreaks.
As students, we understand much of the prevention of the pandemic falls on our shoulders. We know it is up to us to socially distance and to do our part. But without proper resources and communication, we will all struggle to do this successfully.
This is unacceptable. As a public university, SIU needs to do better and it needs to become more transparent. If it doesn’t, people are going to start dying.
We don’t want to write obituaries for our friends, co-workers and teachers when it can be avoided by better policies and more transparency from the administration.
We want to live to make it to graduation.
The Daily Egyptian Editorial Board can be reached at our editor email: [email protected]
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