MSU staff and students cry foul over COVID-19 mitigation efforts

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EAST LANSING – Michigan State University resumed in-person classes last month, requiring masks and vaccinations for students and staff, but some are calling for the school to do more.

The proportion of COVID-19 cases to people on campus is much lower than it was a year ago. But cases have increased since the students returned, reaching 381 positives as of September 20.

At the same time last year, MSU had reported 115 cases, according to MSU spokesman Dan Olsen. But that was back when only a fraction of the students were on campus and most of the classes were online. At the height of the 2020-21 school year, only 3,000 students lived on campus.

President Samuel Stanley Jr. said after a recent board meeting that even if he is “still concerned”, he does not “see at all (MSU) in a state of epidemic”.

However, some students and staff question the steps MSU has taken – or failed to take – to keep them and their information safe.

Over the past few weeks, these grievances have clustered into three main sticking points:

  • MSU’s decision to stop informing instructors of positive cases among their students unless they are in direct contact with the student
  • A busy triage line where students and staff self-report positive COVID-19 cases
  • Denied requests from faculty and staff to move their classes online after learning that students in those classes tested positive for COVID-19.

These concerns have come to a head in recent days, prompting a protest outside Cowles House on Friday night and a petition effort calling on MSU to implement safer COVID-19 policies.

Ava Hill, a fourth-year doctoral student and member of the MSU Graduate Employees Union, who led much of the charge, said in an email: “In addition to the risks to our safety and that of our students, the The stress of teaching and learning under these conditions makes effective teaching impossible. While we understand the University’s desire to hold face-to-face classes, we refuse to accept the suffering and death that will accompany the inflexible policies currently in place.

MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, speaks on Monday, August 23, 2021, during an interview on the back porch of Cowles House on the Michigan State University campus.

More COVID case notifications for instructors

Citing a high vaccination rate, the existing mask mandate and improvements to air filtration in classrooms, the MSU marshal announced on September 15 that he would no longer notify instructors when a student in one of her classes would be positive for COVID-19, unless the teacher was. in close contact with this student.

Instead, students and staff will be notified by the Ingham County Health Department or an MSU triage team if they have been within six feet of a person who tests positive for more than 15 minutes, the school said in the message to staff.

“At this point in the semester, MSU’s high vaccination rate, mask tenure, MSU’s COVID-19 triage team contact tracing, and air filtering improvements prove that we are able to change course, ”Provost Teresa Woodruff said in the post.

Since August 1, MSU has recorded a test positivity rate of 1.86% thanks to its COVID-19 early detection testing program, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Some instructors argue that MSU’s broader notifications should continue.

“It seems to be based on the assumption that each instructor gives a class on a podium in front of their class for an hour, which is not how many classes work here,” Hill said in the email. “Lab classes and flip classes, for example, often have instructors regularly near their students, so many instructors would be considered close contacts as defined by the CDC.”

The CDC defines close contact as people who have been within six feet of each other for at least 15 minutes in the two days before the onset of illness, whether or not the person is wearing a mask.

Linda Vail, head of health for Ingham County, said sending general case notifications for each individual case and not just for outbreaks, which is the current practice, can be confusing and dangerous. false sense of security. And email inboxes would be swamped with positive case notifications, she added.

“This is where we’re headed: an abundance of emails,” said Vail. “If you repeat this over and over again, you stop paying attention to it.”

Instead, she recommended anyone who is concerned not to be told regularly enough to get tested weekly and follow other safety precautions, like wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.

“We shouldn’t create a false sense of security,” Vail said. “We must follow all safety precautions at all times.”

Requests denied to move class online after COVID cases

As cases increase, instructors want the freedom to move their courses online if they feel the spread of COVID-19 among students is too great a threat to continue in person.

But teachers are already meeting resistance.

As cases of COVID-19 emerge on campus, some professors are trying to move their in-person classes online when a student in class tests positive.

Several requests were refused.

The MSU Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty has received a memorandum of understanding from MSU allowing instructors to discuss online courses or a hybrid format in the event of COVID-19 cases in their classroom, according to Kate Birdsall, associate professor and union President.

But, she said, in practice, the memorandum does not grant full autonomy to instructors.

“We want leadership that prioritizes the health of our community rather than requiring face-to-face lessons,” Birdsall said in an email. “We understand the university’s desire to get back to normal and also want the pandemic to be over. Yet with a virulent virus continuing to rage, we are making safety a priority and priority. “

She continued, “We are highly skilled professionals who are capable of making good decisions, just like our directors and presidents – we want to know why the Marshal’s office micromanages these decisions. “

Instructors can meet with their department heads or college deans to discuss the courses online or in a hybrid format, Olsen argued. These deans and department heads must consult with the provost’s office, but the decision rests with the dean or department head, he said.

Olsen also took issue with the provost’s office micromanaging the instructors.

“While college deans are encouraged to consult with the provost’s office on course modalities transitions, the decision to grant or deny a faculty member’s request to make a change mid-semester is ultimately taken by the deans and college presidents, ”said Olsen. in a statement sent by email. “College deans and presidents assess a number of factors before making their decision, including the impact on the educational needs of students.”

Overwhelmed case reporting hotline

Part of MSU’s COVID-19 response includes a triage hotline where faculty, staff and students can report positive COVID-19 cases themselves or ask health questions.

But some said staff issues resulted in wait times of several hours.

MSU is actively looking to hire more people to work on the understaffed yard line.

“We are aware of the concerns,” Olsen said. “It’s certainly not something that we wished it would happen.”

He cited a talent shortage as the reason for the staff shortage. Among other requirements, yard line operators must be trained on what information to collect from callers to aid in contact tracing.

Still, Olsen said that “a vast majority” of cases at MSU are caught through partnerships with local health departments.

Vail agreed with this opinion, saying there was no reason the cases should go undetected. All positive cases are forwarded directly to Michigan’s COVID-19 surveillance system. Additionally, the Ingham County Health Department has a list of MSU students that it scans through a weekly case list to find all MSU cases each week.

Students and staff shouldn’t have to call the triage line if they’ve tested positive, Vail said. If they become particularly ill, Vail recommends isolating them for 10 days after symptoms of COVID-19 appear.

Contact Mark Johnson at 517-377-1026 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMarkJohnson.



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