The University of Alabama made headlines this week with the shocking announcement that more than 500 students, faculty, and staff had tested positive for the coronavirus in the first five days of classes. But professors at the university say they were just as disturbed by emails from the administration telling them not to speak up about outbreaks.
In an email to the politics department, professors were explicitly instructed not to tell their students if someone in a class tests positive.
“Do not tell the rest of the class,” the email reads, with the word “not” underlined. It goes on to say that students who test positive are not considered an exposure risk if masks were worn and social distancing was practiced—meaning the students and professor may never be informed if someone in their class tests positive.
Multiple other emails from other departments reviewed by The Daily Beast warn teachers against telling students about a positive classmate or posting about it on social media, even in the most general terms, claiming it could constitute a HIPAA violation.
Professors who spoke with The Daily Beast said the policy made them feel unsafe on campus.
“A lot of my colleagues and people I've talked to, they’re terrified,” said Michael Innis-Jimenez, an American studies professor who decided to teach his classes remotely after learning the details of the school’s reopening plan.
“Every statement at least for the last month has been about this plan, they’ve got this plan,” he said, adding later: “It makes it feel like a lot of this is for show, especially when they don’t want you to confirm it’s not working.”
Asked about the email, Associate VP for Communications Monica Watts directed The Daily Beast to the official guidance on its website, which states that, “for privacy reasons, the instructor should not announce to the class that a student in the class has tested positive, even anonymously.” She added that professors can request confirmation through the UA Healthcheck system—a 30-second self-reported questionnaire—to “verify that students are in compliance with all health and safety protocols.”
The crisis in Tuscaloosa comes amid similar outbreaks at schools across the country, Both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame were forced to move to online-only classes after a spike in cases this month. Dozens of schools have reported widespread outbreaks in their sports programs and Greek life communities, and some—including the University of Alabama—have suspended all gatherings and social events.
In an email to faculty Tuesday, Alabama Provost James Dalton reiterated that professors are not responsible for reporting positive cases to their students or the school. The reason for this, he wrote, is because the university has a “robust program” for alerting exposed parties, as well as “instructions for isolation that puts the health and well-being of our community at the forefront.”
“If the established rules for masks and physical distancing are followed in the classroom, then the risk of transmission from the positive student is minimal, and it is not necessary to inform the rest of the class they may have been in the same room as a positive classmate,” the email states. “For privacy reasons, the instructor should not announce to the class that a student in the class tested positive, even anonymously.”
But students and staff say the program is anything but “robust.” If a student tests positive on campus, the COVID Support Program is automatically informed and the university reaches out. But students who test positive with an off-campus provider are directed to call a school-sponsored COVID-19 hotline that usually goes to voicemail and can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours for a response. (Watts said there is also an online reporting option.)
When they do get a response, positive or exposed students are moved to special dorms to quarantine or isolate. Multiple students told The Daily Beast that they had seen students leaving those dorms to get food or go out on the weekend. When the alarmed students called residential housing, they were informed that the isolation process works on an “honor system,” in which students alone are responsible for making sure they maintain quarantine properly.
Sarah Ortbal lives in a building next to the quarantine dorms and shares laundry facilities with those five buildings. She said the school never informed her that she would be living next to exposed students. When a friend discovered this and emailed the school to request different housing, they suggested she move off campus.
Bailey Lanai, a resident adviser on campus, said he called the housing department to report several violations of the quarantine rules and was told that while students would be punished for breaking the rules, there was no one specifically in charge of enforcing them.
“There’s a pretty massive communication breakdown happening between the students quarantine and whoever is supposed to be in charge of them,” he said. “It really just seems like they did not think this through.”
Another member of the housing staff, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said students in quarantine had been seen congregating outside, hanging out of their windows, and screaming profanities at faculty who passed by.
“There’s nobody supervising these buildings, it’s a complete free-for-all,” this person said. “They’re running wild.”
Watts said that the university provides students in quarantine facilities with guidelines they are expected to follow, and that they are “regularly monitoring student needs and responding with additional services as needed.” She also said that the campus police department patrols the area in the evening and at night, and that resident advisers conduct “regular rounds.” (Two members of the housing staff told The Daily Beast that RAs only conduct two rounds a day, both in the evening.)
Students and staff say this is part of a pattern of obfuscation on campus. The statistics that made headlines last week were the result of a lobbying campaign by students and faculty to get the university to release the numbers of students who tested positive on campus, not just the percentage. It was not until the faculty senate passed a resolution demanding the numbers that the university released its COVID-19 dashboard, which reported multiple different numbers, and was even briefly taken down, after it debuted on Monday. (Watts said the dashboard had been part of the health and safety plan “from the outset.”)
“I just don’t like that there’s no transparency,” said one graduate student who lives on campus and asked not to be named because she has an on-campus job. “ It just makes me wonder, are they hiding something? Is there something they don’t want me to know? Because it doesn’t feel like the focus is on protecting me and my fellow students."
When news broke of the hundreds of positive test results this week, UA president Stuart Bell publicly insisted that the fault did not lie with the students. But in internal communications, he warned students and faculty to “tak[e] your responsibilities seriously.” For the students who had witnessed the slow roll-out of the dashboard and the lax enforcement of quarantine policies, it felt like a slap in the face.
“I don't have any problem with personal responsibility, but I just do not think UA and the administration thought this through before everyone decided to come to campus,” Lanai said.
He added, “I think it is unfair for them to put all the blame and responsibility on students instead of looking in the mirror.”