SPARK: University COVID-19 communication lacking

Students, faculty and staff have been voicing their concerns at the communication the community has received from the university during COVID-19, but especially so when the academic year began without being required to produce negative test results before returning to campus in August. 

For many students the most frustrating part of the academic year came with the first round of surveillance testing. Testing was reported to begin the week of Feb. 22. 

On Feb. 23 a Valpo student took off work to be tested in accordance with the guidelines the university set. They were met with a note on the door of the testing site that said, “Unfortunately, there will be no testing until further notice. Communication will come out with more details soon.” 

The student said they had taken off work to be tested and was not notified of this change. “No one was there to answer my questions, no contact info was listed, no email sent out before I went out of my way to prioritize getting tested today,” they tweeted. “I didn’t just tweet, I sent an email, but wanted to get this info out to other students ASAP.”

The hours set for testing were 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the university sent an email notifying students of the site closure just after 10:15 a.m. Students were able to be tested on another date that week. 

This backup in testing caused long wait times for students for the days following the closure. Many missed classes, work and other obligations due to the long lines. The Health Center sent an email at 4:24 p.m. on Feb. 24, 8.5 hours after testing for the day began. They let students know the University had an “internal personnel issue with that [3rd party] lab that has complicated and significantly slowed the planned testing process this week,” the email said. “We apologize for the significant challenges and inconveniences that this issue has caused our student community.” There were no new student concerns about wait times after the lab extended their hours to 8 p.m. that day. 

After test results began to come through, hundreds of students suddenly found themselves in isolation or quarantine. On March. 6, the site updated with 351 students in isolation or quarantine on campus, the highest number to date. Of that count, 79 were positive. There was a brief period where the Looking Forward dashboard read “0% of Campus Quarantine Housing Available” before Residential Life found another solution.

Photos began filtering through social media platforms of signs in communal residence hall bathrooms that certain stalls and sinks were to be used by quarantine students only. Before this first round of testing, it did not appear that any students were quarantining in their own dorm room if they did not have access to a private bathroom, like those in Beacon Hall or the Promenade Apartments. Students not in quarantine did not understand why they were suddenly sharing bathrooms with students in quarantine. 

A resident of the Promenade Apartments noticed a fellow resident they knew to be in quarantine during the same time frame walking outside without a mask on. 

Enough students had reached out asking about these new procedures that had not been previously communicated that Residential Life sent an email to students titled “Quarantine Procedures.” In this email, they said, “In very few cases, the bathroom is a community bathroom shared with other COVID-19 positive students in the same residential wing/area.”

For students who had been contact traced but hadn’t tested positive, the email said “Students may remain in their current room unless otherwise instructed by Residential Life or the Health Center. If the impacted students have a roommate(s) and the roommate wants to relocate during this self-quarantine period, Residential Life will work with them to find a temporary room, usually in the building they currently reside.”

In prior procedures for contact tracing, students who had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 were put into quarantine with their own bathrooms and isolated for 14 days, spending more or less time depending on the Health Center’s direction. 

In the same section, they said “While they should primarily remain in their room, they may go to the Union and get a take-out/grab-n-go meal and return to their room to eat it. They should not eat their meal in Founder’s Table.”

This was also not an option before the mass quarantines we saw after the first round of surveillance testing. Prior to this, quarantined students were not permitted to leave their dorm room unless they were opening their door to receive food delivered by Parkhurst or to retrieve a self-administered COVID-19 test from the Health Center. 

“We are only offering this “self-quarantine” option to asymptomatic individuals who were in contact with a positive case that was also asymptomatic,” the email said. “Those in contact with symptomatic people or begin to have symptoms will be placed into an isolated, private room setting.”

After this email it was understood that this was occurring because of the sudden rise in cases and the need to accommodate for more quarantine spaces, as availability was temporarily at 0%. Students in these halls were not notified until after the fact that quarantining students would be sharing spaces with them. 

According to Ryan Blevins, the Assistant Dean of Students in Residential Life, students who had direct exposure and were symptomatic were placed into isolation immediately. 

However, students with secondary exposure who were asymptomatic were told to self isolate. 

“So they weren’t at risk to the community, especially if they were asymptomatic and the person who they were exposed to was asymptomatic,” said Blevins. 

However, he did acknowledge the university did not communicate this well with the community.

“It was not explained well when we were communicating to the students that that’s what we were doing. And that’s poor communication on the university’s part right there,” said Blevins. “But when we explained it later, it was more easily understood, but it did create a lot of anxiety for people...”

On March 15, President Padilla released an email regarding COVID-19 on campus. He announced a return to in-person learning after classes were moved online March 1 due to high case load. The email also indicated that the lab used for surveillance testing would be changed.

Padilla has recently shared that it is believed the previous lab had faulty testing. Several students who tested positive were retested at other locations and received negative results.

Beyond the lab, students have struggled with gaining responses from the University Health Center regarding test results and contact tracing. Students who discovered they or someone they had been in contact with over the weekend received little or no guidance regarding quarantining and further options.

Freshman Annie Sully, experienced this along with a group of her friends. 

“I was hanging out with my friends and the next day, I got a text saying one of them was positive. So then she contacted the Health Center, but the Health Center was closed, like everything was closed, she literally could not even talk to anyone. So we all didn't know what to do. So we all just stayed in our rooms or whatever. I actually called the health center Monday morning because I was vaccinated,” Sully said. 

Sully had already received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but was still made to quarantine because her second shot would not be fully effective for a few more days.

“There's two weeks after your second dose that you're not effective. She's like, yes, three more days, four more days, so you have to go into quarantine anyways,” Sully said.

Tests were administered to her and her friends only once, after ten days in isolation. Upon receiving negative results, they were still required to remain in quarantine for two more days and were given no additional testing or information. Sully was also made to stay in quarantine although her vaccine had reached its effectiveness and her test results were negative.

“They tested us just one time,” Sully said. “And then if you're negative you just have to wait it out.”

Beyond the lack of response from the Health Center, the student who tested positive attempted to reach out to the university through other platforms. 

“She emailed the health center, she called the health center. They didn't respond. She called reslife. And emailed reslife. None of them responded,” Sully said. “And then she called the school in general, and no one answered either because it was the weekend so everything's closed. So she literally did not know what to do because she couldn't go to her room because her roommate was there, though she just like ended up going home.”

The lack of communication from the Health Center and other university staff has been alarming to students and left them confused, without answers for days. 

“It was just so much miscommunication, so then the fact that it was closed on the weekend just kind of ruined everything. Then we would have gotten to quarantine on Sunday… I feel like they should have it open a little weekend just because like, that's what a lot of like get togethers happen,” Sully said. 

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