• Clarissa Del Rio

Where’s the transparency? Lack of COVID-19 communication leads to student confusion

Updated October 20, 2020: The USF Crisis Management Team released a mass email update to all of USF, the details of which are found below this article.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made 2020 a year full of uncertainty through the challenges that come with adapting to these unprecedented times. From social gatherings to going to the grocery store, everything has requirements that we would not have even imagined of a year ago. From wearing a mask and staying six feet apart, to avoiding large groups and outings, this year has been something that we have all had to learn to adjust to. This is especially true in the university setting. When USF went into lockdown last spring, it sent its residents home and switched to a completely online format. A sense of uncertainty and the anxiety of not knowing what would happen next spread across the student body. 

With anything in science, it is only through time and observation that we can learn more about COVID-19 and what activities and practices increase or decrease the risk of contracting the virus. The CDC has claimed that attending colleges and universities are safe as long as social distancing, hygiene, and mask-wearing practices are followed. However, many students on campus still feel hesitant about how safe it is to be on campus during the pandemic. Through asking several students their perception of the state of COVID-19 on campus and an interview with Dean of Students, Mollie Rockafellow, I ventured off to find out where is the transparency on the issue.  

Before talking to the administration, I wanted to get an idea of how students perceived how the university has been handling COVID-19 so far this year. Kassandra Cazares states of how communication has been lacking. “I feel like the school is being very secretive. They try to do the best they can to keep us safe but of course, people at school have [allegedly] tested positive, so I feel like by not announcing [updates of COVID cases] they are trying to make us think they’re doing a better job than other schools and trying to avoid a ‘move to online’ petition like last semester,” she states. 

Other students, like Leslie Delgado, recognize that USF is doing all it can but there is room for improvement. Delgado explains, “So far, I feel as though USF has been handling COVID-19 very well and about as organized as it can get. It was and still is an unprecedented event, so it’s not something that can be pinpointed down, which makes it hard to plan for the future. I do, however, feel a bit lost when it comes to knowing the number of cases on campus. I feel safe knowing that it is being handled and that there are no major outbreaks, but I do feel a bit out of the loop when and if there are cases on campus. I think knowing this would make me feel more reassured and would also reduce the risk of contact and spreading even more. Maybe even implementing weekly testing to be sure that one has the virus would greatly reassure less cases.”

There is also the question of how students can bring up concerns to the administration. When asked if she knows what to do to bring valid concerns to the administrators, Cazares responds, “I don’t. I can speak to a professor but they’ll just reassure me that the school is doing the best they can. Administration will tell us the same thing and let us know that it’s okay to take time off from school but there are students like myself who can’t afford to do that.” Elizabeth Tuck, another USF student, states “I have no idea what I would do if I had a concern.Other students, like Delgado, state that they do feel like they can reach the people in charge. Delgado states, “USF has created a comfortable and “home-like” environment, which I think is crucial, especially in moments of crisis such as these. If I have any concerns, I feel comfortable seeking help or asking questions to anyone of administration whether it be by e-mail or in person.”

I also asked students where they could find updates on COVID cases on-campus. USF student Timothy Wade answered, “Covid updates are on the TV's or in our email.” All other students interviewed claimed that they had no idea on where to go when looking for consistent COVID-19 updates aside from student rumors.

After talking to several students to get their feedback on regarding their perception of how USF is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that as a student myself, some of the biggest concerns I wanted to be addressed were: 

  • How many cases of COVID-19 have been reported on campus whether it be students, faculty, or staff?

  • Where can students go to report any concerns or ask questions regarding COVID-19?

  • Is the University aware of its students’ concerns and the rumors spreading around campus that allegedly multiple students have contracted COVID-19?

  • Why is the University not communicating consistent updates regarding the number of cases? 

To find clarity and truth, as well as to dispel rumors, I brought up these concerns through an interview with the Dean of Students, Mollie Rockafellow. 

Students are hearing rumors that there have been COVID-19 cases on the football team and softball team, but there have been no updates from Student Life acknowledging these concerns. Has the administration been made aware of these rumors? How does the university plan on working to dispel these rumors and clear the air for its students? 

“We are working to have a consistent communication plan with students. If there are cases that are reported to us we work directly with the students involved to address any need to quarantine or isolate. Students are requested to consult with their county health department and their physician. We have an obligation to respect students’ privacy through this process. If we believed there to be a chance of exposure per CDC and Will County Health guidelines we would contact those students directly. We ask all students if they have a concern about their own personal safety to reach out to the Wellness Center or myself. Also, we ask that all students work to stand up to any rumors as they are not helpful for anyone during this stressful time.”

Many students feel as though there is not a direct way to reach the administration with their concerns. How should a student go about making their voices heard when faced with uncertainty on campus?

“If a student has a concern they can bring it to the department that it is most connected to. If they are unsure they are able to submit it on the portal https://myusf.stfrancis.edu/portal/secure/student/complaints where it would automatically route for them and the outcome tracked.  As the Dean of Student Life, I am also a resource to help students navigate this process.”

Many other colleges are releasing numbers about how many people have tested positive or even the number of students that have had to quarantine/isolate. For example, Lewis University has a weekly updated tracker of cases on campus that can be easily accessible online. Why has USF not done the same?

“Colleges and universities across the country have identified practices that work best for their respective school community and overall COVID-19 response. The University has not had any on-campus transmissions. Meaning no one has contracted the virus on campus. We don’t have any numbers to report at this time.”

How is the university tracking its COVID-19 cases? 

“Any on-campus COVID-19 related processing is coordinated through the USF Wellness Center. We also continue to work closely with the Will County Health Department.”

Is there any data to reference how effective USF’s current policy and preparedness plan has been so far?

"The data we have is that we have not reported on campus transmissions. We believe this is because as people have realized they are not feeling well they do not return to campus until they are sure that they are feeling well. When students use the Involvio app to report they are not able to come to campus we contact them to coach them through the process of contacting a medical provider and not returning to campus until they are well. In talking with our peer institutions we are aware that they have similar policies and guidelines and are experiencing low case numbers as well.

"It is important to note that our safe return to campus speaks volumes as to the outstanding job the entire USF community had done with adhering to the USF Preparedness Plan and the four general practices we introduced over the summer. This ‘Saints United’ approach is imperative in helping to keep our campus healthy and safe, so the USF community has a lot to be proud of with how the fall semester has progressed."

Without violating any HIPAA laws (not naming names, but only numbers) have there been any students, staff, or faculty members that have caught COVID-19?

The University has not had any on-campus transmissions. Meaning no one has contracted the virus while on campus. We are not reporting on cases that are not present on campus.

Theoretically, if I had tested positive for COVID what would be the next steps? Would my COVID case be communicated to the student body?

“The next steps would be to fill out the COVID campus leave form (cm.maxient.com/reportingform.php?UnivofStFrancis&layout_id=11) and then after that, contact tracing would be done through the Will County Health Department to identify if the virus was caught on campus or not”

Why are only “on campus transmissions” being reported?

“Any off-campus transmissions are so low that if were communicated on a weekly basis, there would hardly be anything to report. [Also,] the concern with reporting off-campus transmissions is that students’ privacy will be violated. If we do release off-campus numbers, students may be able to by process of elimination find out which individual contracted it. We want to uphold and protect individual privacy on campus.”

Theoretically, even if it were found that only one person every two weeks contracted the virus off campus, this information is better to be aware of than only going off rumors and becoming anxious over what the real numbers are. What does the University plan to do with these concerns moving forward?

“As of now, I am talking to the Student Government Association to figure out if we will be able to have a way of reporting that alleviates the concerns you mentioned while also keeping individual privacy in mind.”

How many cases would it take for a university-wide communication to be sent out to notify students that the Coronavirus is on campus?

“In an event of an outbreak on campus, the University would communicate this information immediately with everyone on campus. According to the Will County Health Department, 5 instances of positive tests from one exposure is considered an outbreak. This would be determined through the contact tracing done via the Will County Health Department.”

Overall, it has been difficult to find transparency on the issue of COVID-19 cases on campus. The university’s emphasis on on-campus transmissions rather than the total number of cases has led to an abundance of confusion and has influenced the spread of rumors on what the numbers are. It has been confirmed that the administration has recently begun to meet with Student Government Association (SGA) to discuss some of these concerns; however, until numbers of all COVID-19 cases (on-campus transmissions or not) are reported, students will continue to turn to rumors rather than truth and clarity that comes with consistent updates on total cases on campus. For now, all we can do as students is our part in following the policies and procedures put in place to protect ourselves when navigating the college campus. 

Update: October 20, 2020

The USF Crisis Management Team released a mass email update to all of USF at 11:47 a.m. Some key takeaways from that email:

USF has had no on-campus transmissions

  • This means no person has contracted COVID-19 from an on-campus source

Number of Positive COVID-19 cases: 15 students and 7 employees

  • None of these cases were contracted on campus nor resulted in the spread of other positive cases on-campus

As of October 15, 75 students have reported to the Wellness Center that they were quarantining. Within that number:

  • 35 student-athletes quarantined for 2 days, 7 of which were placed in designated quarantine rooms

A total of 25 USF employees have self-quarantined since August

Continue to follow The Encounter for more updates.

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