Rising Infection Numbers as Plans for the Spring Continue Apace

UPDATE: Two BU students have started a petition titled “Allow BU Faculty and Staff to Work from Anywhere During Spring 2021.” I didn’t know about this in advance. Thank you BU students for supporting Teach from Anywhere / Work from Anywhere! The petition is open for all to sign. Please do.

For the last two weeks, the average number of new positive infections at BU has been higher than 5 people per day (there were 74 positive test results reported from Oct 12 to Oct 25). This is a significant increase over earlier numbers. Boston public K-12 schools recently moved their classes fully online in response to rising numbers of positive test results in the general population, but Boston University appears to be as committed as ever to keeping students on campus, and continuing with the unpopular and flawed Learn from Anywhere (LfA) hybrid teaching model. BU students are being asked to not return home for the Thanksgiving break, or to stay at home and not return to campus if they do go home. However, no rule that students cannot return to campus if they travel at Thanksgiving will be enforced. A discussion on Reddit suggests that some students at least are planning to return to campus after traveling home for Thanksgiving. In any case, we may expect the number of positive infections on campus to keep increasing. Students, staff and faculty will continue to be exposed to COVID-19 on campus. We are all in the dark as to what life has been like for the 214 people who have so far tested positive in the official testing program,* but hopefully the university is staying in touch with all of these people to ascertain how many are suffering from so-called ‘Long COVID.’   

Despite the fact that there is no reason to be optimistic about the infection rate we will be facing in the Spring semester, BU has ramped up efforts to maximize the number of instructors who will teach classes in person, aiming to provide fewer exceptions than in the present semester. Staff have been told that the staff presence on campus will be expanded, and that this means that guidance previously offered that “all staff should work remotely if possible” is to be modified to allow managers to determine who is needed on campus (these instructions were provided in an email to staff from the BU President on October 13).

It has become abundantly clear that the federal government has chosen to turn its back on the option of large-scale public health efforts to attempt to seriously fight the spread of COVID-19, prior to the availability of a vaccine (which will not be available until we are well into 2021). Perhaps BU’s leaders also accept something like this passive policy of accepting infections on a local level? After all, we have not been told anything about what the threshold is, such that if positive infections at BU reach that level, the campus will close. And there has been no reversal in the policy to not inform instructors and class members when a student in a classroom tests positive, despite all the evidence we now have that the six foot rule indoors is not a rule that should be the centerpiece of contact tracing, and despite the call by five BU public health experts to rethink decisions of this kind (a call that was rejected by the BU President at a recent Faculty Council meeting, where he was directly asked about it). 

The BU PhD Student Coalition has released a carefully written report summarizing the results of their small survey of students, staff, and faculty, regarding the failures of LfA. It makes for interesting reading. The university has begun a larger voluntary survey, described in the email faculty received from the Provost’s Office a few days ago as a survey intended to help improve the model (rather than to assess the model). This survey needs to be completed by November 2. I suspect many will feel too exhausted to complete the survey, but obviously it would be a good idea for as many of us to complete it as possible, without pulling any punches in our responses, even though we may be cynical about what, if anything, will be done with the survey results. 

Let me end by mentioning that today an email was sent out to department chairs, directors, and administrators in the College of Arts and Sciences indicating that the university is now beginning a “formal process for taking corrective actions in cases where faculty and staff are not being compliant” with Covid-19 safety and health protocols, such as the daily attestation program. Supervisors (e.g. heads of department) are being asked to monitor and report faculty and staff non-compliance, and “possible corrective actions for faculty include, but are not limited to, suspension of discretionary, research, or summer funding; reduction in future merit increase(s); and/or a formal letter of reprimand put in the faculty member’s personnel file.”

*Note: If students or employees test positive elsewhere in Boston, their positive results are not added to the count on the dashboard (as a separate line item, which would be sensible and feasible, yet I am fairly confident the university will not be doing this). The BU community subsequently has no idea how much higher the total number of students and employees who have tested positive is, although it’s possible this information is still being tracked (one would hope so). [In the original version of this note I said that I thought no testing of symptomatic students or employees is occurring at BU, but I have since learnt that this is not true; BU has a test center dedicated to testing symptomatic students and employees.]