A Misleading and Negligent Policy Statement

UPDATE, August 27: An email campaign has been started to object to BU’s policy choice to refuse to notify faculty and other instructors if a student in their class tests positive. Email messages to President Brown, Provost Morrison, and the Board of Trustees are easy to send using the provided form.

Boston University yesterday issued what is arguably a misleading and negligent policy statement concerning contact tracing, and BU Today this morning followed up with a public relations article that provides a few more details regarding the policy decision.

The statement is misleading because at least one of the main reasons for the decision to not inform in-person instructors when a student in their class tests positive is not mentioned. That reason is simple: the university is concerned that there will be too many cases where instructors respond to such news by (justifiably) taking their classes online and entering quarantine for two weeks. Here is an epidemiologist at BU making this point, in response to my own reaction (this is a different BU public health expert from the one who anonymously contributed to my last post):

Learn from Anywhere is a decaying structure that was never an attractive option to faculty, since we’ve known for months that it is pedagogically inferior to teaching online during a pandemic (for most courses, at least, and when it involves teaching mask to mask). It is appropriate to describe it as decaying because many of us have now been granted the right to teach our classes online. At this point, I suspect the university is worried LfA may completely fall apart if they were to provide information to instructors that would lead them to do the morally right thing when a student in their class tests positive, and take their classes online for a period.

This policy choice is also negligent, because it attempts to prevent instructors from taking a course of action that is now widely recognized to be morally required by appropriately evolving public health standards. A number of US states require certain businesses (such as restaurants) to keep the contact details of customers who visit, in order to aid in later contact tracing efforts. Such measures actually predate recognition of the growing body of evidence we now possess that spending time with others indoors for extended periods of time is a significant risk when it comes to the transmission of Covid-19, and that the six-foot spacing rule is both insufficient and can provide a false sense of security indoors. The university claims in this statement to be following “best practices,” but it is doing no such thing (what it really means to be saying is that it is making the same policy choice as some other universities that are making similarly bad choices). Our leaders pride themselves on promoting excellent science when it suits them (as with our testing program), but not when it is inconvenient to do so.

What about privacy law? This is a red herring. None of us wish to know which particular students have tested positive. And I’m hearing from legal experts that there would be no violation of privacy law if instructors are contacted with a general claim about numbers when students in their in-person classes test positive (an example; and another [second example added on August 26]). We can be sure that the university consulted lawyers, and that if the advice they received had been that it is very clear that the much better contact tracing policy option being rejected would involve a privacy violation according to the law, the university most certainly would have said that in their statement. Why would they hold that back? Instead, we get one short and purposely vague reference to reviewing the law.

The university’s argument concerning the need to protect privacy fails to take account of the fact that classes are being offered in a hybrid format that already allows for, and in some cases requires (when ‘platoons’ are used), a number of students to be attending classes online. This fact, as well as the more mundane fact that students can miss classes for any number of reasons, and can provide whatever excuses they like for missing classes (even before the pandemic, we were directed not to ask for proof of reported reasons for needing to miss class), ensure that no particular individuals would be identified in the morally required contact tracing approach that is being rejected.

The BU Today article reports: ‘College of Arts & Sciences faculty “advocated strongly for notification,” [Prof. O’Keefe] says, while instructors at other schools have told her they’re less concerned.’ It may well be that pushback on Faculty Council has been coming more from CAS faculty than others (perhaps because many faculty in other colleges do not have tenure). That shouldn’t be taken as revealing the true views of faculty at large. Here is a constructive proposal: provide a single question, anonymous survey to all instructors who will be teaching their classes in person. Simply ask everyone, “Do you think you should be notified by the university whenever someone tests positive in your class, with no student names ever being provided?” If such a survey were to be provided, I predict that an overwhelmingly high percentage of instructors would respond that they do think they should be notified in this way in such circumstances. That’s what I’m hearing from many people in other colleges today.

UPDATE, August 26: There are other important implications of BU’s negligent policy choice that I could have mentioned in my post, and it has been helpful to read people drawing out some of these implications in the comments section that follows the BU Today article, and elsewhere. Here are a couple of implications particularly worth mentioning. Although undergraduate students are required to be tested twice a week, instructors will only be tested once a week. This means that if an instructor is infected on a Monday after being tested (say), they may not know until the Tuesday of the following week (eight days later; I am including an extra day because it takes a day to find out the results of a test) that they have been infected. During that period there will have been many opportunities for them to spread the virus to their family members and other people they have come into contact with. A second, related implication is that since most instructors teach two classes, undergraduate students who an instructor goes on to teach in their other class, or meets with during office hours, may well become infected as well. This is an implication not lost on a worried undergraduate student who left a comment after the BU Today article indicating that BU students have not been informed by email that this reckless policy is in place.