URBANA — From an outside perspective, it may be hard to poke holes in the University of Illinois’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 90 percent of people working and studying at the Urbana-Champaign campus, including over 92 percent of students, are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Masks are mandated in all indoor spaces, and new cases have slowed, down to 28 new positives in the last week among more than 16,000 tests.
But unions that represent instructors say the campus known for using the “Safer Illinois” app to track cases has room to be even safer.
This semester has been marked, they said, by inflexible procedures when students or faculty in classrooms tested positive. Many reported infrequent check-ins from “wellness support associates,” who verify whether entrants to classroom buildings are vaccinated or have tested negative for COVID-19.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization, Campus Faculty Association and Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition met Tuesday to host a “People’s COVID-19 Briefing” where they shared firsthand classroom experiences from this semester.
Students and instructors in attendance mainly reported issues after people who were attending in-person classes tested positive for COVID-19.
One such student, senior Elias Decker, said he tested positive after attending his first day of fall classes and emailed his teachers, thinking they would already have been informed about a positive case in their class spaces.
“Every single one of them replied to me, ‘I had no idea, thank you for letting me know,’ and it was pretty jarring to find out,” Decker said.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is the only local body that conducts contact tracing. A UI student or employee who tests positive, like others in Champaign County, is asked to provide the health district with a list of close contacts who spent 15 or more minutes within 6 feet while they were potentially positive for COVID-19.
UI instructors are not allowed to inform their classes when a student discloses that he or she has tested positive, as that is the student’s private medical information.
Once teachers learn that information, UI administrators have been clear: Do not go virtual immediately.
“Because the student tells (an instructor) that they have tested positive, that does not mean this is a call for the instructor to move their class online,” Provost Andreas Cangellaris said in a briefing in early September. “Unless there has been information shared by CUPHD related to contact tracing, with the instructor or others in the classroom that suggests something needs to happen, they should not take the action to move the class online.”
When to go remote
Many instructors took the step of temporarily moving classes online after students who attended in-person lectures and labs in the first few weeks tested positive.
First-year master’s student Brienne Hayes said she made the choice for her second class after one of her students tested positive.
“I have talked to my students about how to handle our safety this semester, and the majority of my students agree that they would prefer to hold class online,” Hayes said.
Moving classes online in upcoming semesters has been discouraged by UI administrators unless the instructor has health issues that prevent them from being in the classroom.
“Instructors who wish to change modality must request and receive approval from the department and college to do so,” Cangellaris said in an email to instructors. “As part of that process, the instructor will need to describe the unique circumstances around the request and discuss them with the unit executive officer.”
The more than 320 wellness-support advocates who check building-access status have also switched to a “spot-checking strategy” this semester, where they fan out around campus in shorter shifts to try to cover as many entrances as possible. Several instructors and students at Tuesday’s meeting said they’d only had their status checked a handful of times seven weeks into the semester.
UI instructors can also check students’ building-access status, but that can take time away from class, and some have faced resistance, said Associate Professor Marc Hertzman.
Hertzman said one female teaching assistant in his department tried checking access on the first day, “and her students basically revolted.”
On Oct. 18, the UI senate will consider a proposal from religion Professor Bruce Rosenstock to form a committee dedicated to investigating classroom transmission.
Rosenstock said he would like to see a classroom strategy closer to that at the Chicago campus, which has its own contact-tracing team and imposes assigned seating in classrooms so students can more easily recall who they were next to in the event that one of them tests positive. At that campus, when a class sees a new case, it moves online for a time.
“I hope it’s going to be supported by the great majority of the senate,” Rosenstock said at Tuesday’s virtual meeting. “I think it will be, in fact, very popular in the senate.”
No time for ‘victory lap’
Would those extra efforts be worth it? Awais Vaid, deputy administrator of the local health district, isn’t so sure.
To his knowledge, he said, there still hasn’t been any COVID-19 transmission stemming from UI classrooms.
“When there’s a few cases across campus among hundreds of classes, with more than 90 percent vaccination, requiring masks indoors, unvaccinated people testing and using advanced ventilation along with some checks of the Safer Illinois app — this seems to me, it’s a lot of work for not much of a gain,” Vaid said. “For public health, we look at the overall risk, and the risk is not there to support such a large undertaking.”
The health district made a push to add more contact tracers when cases were rising a month ago; since then, some of the contract tracers it hired have moved to staffing vaccination clinics.
“We don’t plan to let them go, in case something shifts or changes,” Vaid said.
With vaccinations available, quarantine guidelines from contact tracers have changed.
“If you are fully vaccinated and exposed to someone, you don’t have to quarantine anymore — it was not the same before,” he said. “If you had previously tested positive within the last 90 days, you do not have to quarantine as well.”
That said, vaccinated individuals who test positive for the virus should still isolate and avoid close contact with others, Vaid said.
One of the most common sentiments shared at Tuesday’s meeting: hoping the university avoids a “victory lap” mentality.
Hertzman said UI President Tim Killeen’s decision to give the Presidential Award and Medallion to the leaders of the UI’s COVID-19 response left a sour taste in the mouths of some instructors.
“These people have done amazing things you know we should we should be proud of, but I think a lot of people made the comparison to when President George W. Bush parachuted onto the aircraft carrier and said, ‘Mission Accomplished,’ and there were still years of war ahead,” he said. “You notice, the pandemic is still going on.”