A Mistake in a Student Survey, a Conundrum that isn’t, and BU failing to meet its Duties to Students and Employees

At a recent CAS Faculty Meeting, faculty were provided with a presentation on the results of a recent “midterm” survey of CAS undergraduate students concerning their experiences in their courses this semester. Unsurprisingly, the survey focused on experiences with Learn from Anywhere. Questions raised by faculty in the meeting brought out that the survey contained a significant flaw. The survey questions failed to distinguish at any point between students who are taking LfA courses remotely, and students who are taking fully remote courses remotely. This is highly significant, because many faculty have for months now been contending that fully remote courses offer much better experiences, for students and instructors, than LfA courses taken remotely do (with some possible exceptions, of course). One of the survey questions was “Have you encountered any difficulties learning 100% remotely?” (this was asked only of students who reported attending no classes in person). Data associated with this question is particularly susceptible to being interpreted in a misleading fashion.

Yesterday, BU Today published an article “BU Students: Zoom vs In-Person Classes? It’s Complicated.” The article admits that a great many students living on campus are no longer attending LfA classes in person, but still tries hard to put a positive spin on LfA, claiming that it is a success. It’s a complicated article, but when all is said and done, it is basically a public relations exercise. I wish to comment on just two small passages here.

‘It’s a little bit of a conundrum,’ says Suzanne Kennedy, associate provost ad interim for undergraduate affairs. ‘Fewer students are going to class than we had expected.’”

This is not a conundrum! Faculty have been telling BU leaders for months that this is what we expected to happen. If our leaders are surprised that’s because they haven’t been listening to faculty. See, for instance, my “False Advertising and the In-Person Experience” (originally published externally, in Inside Higher Ed on August 12).

This new BU Today article skirts completely around the option of remote only classes, which a great many students are taking (sometimes from the beginning of semester, and sometimes because everyone has decided to attend the course remotely, even though it started in LfA mode). Fully remote courses avoid the serious problems that LfA courses have when it comes to trying to juggle the needs of students in the classroom and the needs of students attending remotely. Instructors who have been forced to teach in the LfA mode have been pointing out that their experiences reveal that the hybrid model generally doesn’t work at all well (the decision to use the LfA model was not made in any democratic fashion that reflected decisions by or the expertise of faculty; it was imposed on us).

Why is the university so concerned that students are opting to attend remotely more than our leaders expected they would? Why should students feel they need to return to in person classes during the pandemic? Harvard and other universities recognize that students live on campus for many different reasons, and have opted to allow (some) students to live on campus, while undergraduate courses are taken in a fully remote fashion. No serious attempt is made in this article to provide an argument for why students should return to in person classes during this pandemic if they don’t wish to attend classes in person. Perhaps the university is simply concerned about the LfA model collapsing completely. We have not been told why that would be a bad thing, given the remote learning alternative.

…higher ed leaders, like BU President Robert A. Brown, acknowledge that the success of the hybrid experiment will force colleges to ask some hard questions about whether some aspects of the technology, such as the ability to Zoom into large lecture classes, could become a permanent part of higher education.”

There are two problems with this. To start with, it contains what philosophers call a presupposition failure. It treats a false claim as an assumption (“…that the success of the hybrid model will force…” presupposes that the hybrid model has been successful, just as “The present King of France is bald” presupposes that there is presently a King of France). The hybrid experiment in universities has not been a success. More to the point, it signals that our university president is taking seriously the idea of students being able to Zoom into large lecture classes becoming a permanent matter. Many faculty will feel that this is extremely worrying, for reasons to do with teaching sensitive content, privacy rights, and pedagogy. I do not mean to deny that there can be good reasons for allowing a video feed in some cases, such as when providing access for disabled students. But we should and would be very concerned if it were ever seriously suggested that the LfA hybrid teaching model ought to be continued in any widespread fashion beyond this pandemic (this is not needed to meet the accessibility concern just mentioned). If that were to ever happen, faculty would need to do everything they can to draw a line in the sand.

On a personal note – but highlighting an issue that should be of general concern – BU has informed me that that my workplace adjustment request for the spring, based on meeting a CDC-recognized COVID health risk criterion, has been approved. However, I have been presented with a forced choice to either agree to be classified as teaching in a “partially remote” way that involves in-person interaction with students, and thereby be allowed access to my office on campus and the testing program (Category 3), or to forego any access to the university and university testing (Category 4). This is a widespread issue for a presently highly vulnerable group of employees. Why does BU insist on treating employees who are vulnerable because they are in COVID health risk categories in a way where they deny them access to COVID testing and their offices unless they agree to meet students in person!? Category 3 does not need to be defined this way. The university is doing this, at least in part, so that it can pressure vulnerable employees into teaching in person, knowing full well that this raises an already significant risk of catching a virus that may kill them (since they are in risk groups). I know this isn’t a new policy, but I can’t resist pointing out once more that it is morally outrageous to exploit vulnerable employees in this way, as well as morally outrageous to leave many vulnerable employees out in the cold by not providing them with testing (those in Category 4).

All of the issues discussed above point to a continuing failure on the part of the university to allow faculty to properly (rather than just nominally) share in governance of our institution. What can faculty do about this? We can’t and won’t form a union. But there is a pressing need for faculty to have a new channel through which faculty interests and concerns can be effectively promoted (in addition to more formal channels that presently exist). I and a number of other employees and students have been sharing ideas about this subject recently, and we may have some news to share on this front quite soon.

It would be remiss of me not to mention here that infection numbers at BU have reached record heights this last week, averaging 9.7 positive results a day for the last week. Yesterday we saw 11 positive results announced for the preceding day. Today, we saw 15, which is a new daily record. This is terrible news.

Finally, there is a report on Reddit of BU seriously mishandling the quarantining process for a student in BU housing who is presently unwell and has tested positive. He was informed when he received his positive test result yesterday morning that he would be contacted soon and moved into quarantine housing, but has been left in his apartment for a day (as of this morning). Is this an indication of a more general problem with an overloaded quarantining system at this point, or is this merely a single (but still significant) mistake of some kind? I don’t know. If I hear more, I will update this page accordingly.


UPDATE, November 15: I have been contacted by a concerned BU staff member who reports that their whole department of more than 200 staff members is being forced to return to work on campus in January, with exceptions made only in a limited number of cases for employees who have workplace adjustment requests approved. According to my contact, this is happening despite the fact that nearly all the work done by this department can be done remotely. Apparently, pretty much all of the regular staff members in this department are opposed to this plan, and decisions are not being left up to lower-level managers to make, but are being imposed on the whole department by upper-level management. Morale is extremely low, and a culture of fear is preventing people from speaking out. Quite understandably, no staff members wish to risk losing their jobs. My contact says that no proper justification has been provided to these staff members for why the people who work in this department all needs to return to work on campus; instead, things like “President Brown is a scientist, so he knows best” are asserted. Assuming the report I have received is correct, the university is behaving in an extremely irresponsible manner in this case by imposing unnecessary risks on staff members. 

UPDATE, November 21: On November 19, The BU student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, published “Faculty and students criticize testing policies, professor access to campus,” which included quotes from interviews with myself and other BU employees and students. As I indicated in my interview with student journalist Nick Kolev, I have heard from a person in a leadership role at BU that the original reasoning behind the decision to not permit people in Category 4 to receive testing was at least in part driven by a concern with testing capacity. However, it is not at all obvious that testing capacity at this time could not feasibly stretch to including people in Category 4, especially if the university were to do more to stop over testing, which is apparently a problem at this time (perhaps this could be prevented by checking that people haven’t had too many tests in the last week whenever IDs are scanned at the testing center). This morning, College of Arts & Sciences faculty and staff were sent an email whose content originated from Human Resources. It included the following text: “Faculty/staff in Category 4… are not eligible to receive any COVID-19 testing at BU… Managers are NOT to honor a faculty/staff member’s request for a change of testing category to enable receiving a COVID-19 test at BU. Faculty/staff having their testing category changed by their manager to enable COVID-19 testing, or bypassing the system to have a COVID-19 test performed, may be subject to corrective action. Managers who change the testing categories of faculty/staff for non-business reasons may also be subject to corrective action. COVID-19 testing at BU is not an employee benefit, it is an essential part of maintaining a safe and healthy campus.” I won’t comment on the punitive measures mentioned in this email, except to say that I think they are unjustifiable and make for an especially tone deaf communication.Regarding the last sentence quoted from the email (italicized above): Why can’t testing be both an essential part of maintaining a safe and healthy campus and an employee benefit for a highly vulnerable group of employees (both because the university should care about the wellbeing of these employees, and as a matter of justice, given the unfairness involved in only a comparatively less vulnerable group of employees being provided with testing)? Note that it can not be said that the present policy represents a reasonable public health policy, because employees who are not being tested are still part of the public at large (and may therefore also unwittingly spread COVID-19 if they are asymptomatic carriers not receiving tests).

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.]

Boston in the Red, an Article by Five BU Public Health Experts, and the Dashboard

On Wednesday this week, Boston moved into the official red zone for coronavirus risks, reflecting a rising replication rate in MA in general. BU’s weekly COVID-19 report notes that the number of positive results at BU increased last week, and Associate Provost Gloria Waters is quoted there as saying that she is “concerned about what we’ll see as we go into next week.”

Amongst other things, the increasing infection numbers mean that this would be a particularly good time for BU to revisit one of its policy decisions, previously criticized on this blog and elsewhere. Five professors from BU’s own School of Public Health this week published an article in Slate arguing that the science concerning aerosols tells us the policy at BU and elsewhere to not inform people who have been attending in person classes when other people in the class test positive should be rejected: “At minimum, we recommend that everyone in the classroom with a positive case be notified so that they can be instructed to quarantine or they can decide to quarantine in order to prevent additional community spread of COVID-19. This would be good public health policy.” Will BU listen to its own public health experts?

In other news this week, BU updated its COVID-19 Dashboard to finally display data for positive test results that use the number of people tested as a denominator, rather than only the number of tests. However, the dashboard only displays data of this kind in one place (in the area listing results for the last seven day period), and this is not the place where it is most needed.

The cumulative data from July 27 is still not being displayed with the right denominator. That is where the data most needs to be displayed in this way, as I explained back in late August. The percentage of positive tests there should keep going up (as the number of people tested stays roughly constant while the number of positive results steadily increases), but instead it will misleadingly keep going down (as the number of tests will keep rising and many people will keep getting negative results again and again, even if there are eventually so many positive results that the university community is obviously in crisis). 

Using the number of people tested in the last week, according to the data provided, I calculate that the positive rate for people tested since July 27 is 0.61% (rather than the 0.07% presently displayed). That would mean that 1 in every 162 people in the BU community has tested positive since July 27. No doubt 0.61% is a little too high because some people got tested in previous weeks but didn’t get tested during the last week. Suppose the correct percentage is 0.4%. That would still mean the 0.07% presently displayed is out by a factor of 5.7!

Finally, another professor at the BU School of Public Health (not one of the five authors of the article mentioned above) continues to point out important facts about test results at BU, and their ramifactions:

Students are Staying Away from University Classrooms

Our university leaders, I have now heard, are very worried about the fact that most students are staying away from university classrooms and opting to attend classes remotely (as predicted). BU Today has not reported on the fact that students enrolled in hybrid classes are opting to attend their classes remotely, but The Daily Free Press has recently published at least two relevant articles, here and here.

It is not exactly clear why our university leaders are worried about students choosing to stay away from physical classrooms – after all, this presumably helps BU keep COVID-19 infection numbers down (although the administration hasn’t publicly said as much), and the whole raison d’être of Learn from Anywhere was meant to be that it provides students with freedom (which they may legitimately exercise by choosing to stay away from classrooms). Perhaps BU’s leaders are worried that dissatisfied students may accuse them of false advertising. It has been suggested to me that they may be concerned about the possibility of the university being the target of further legal suits. But I must confess that I am uncertain as to why they are worried.

I have also heard that our university leaders were recently informed by a group of professors that instructors are finding that they can either cater to the students who are in the physical classroom, or cater to the students at home, but that it is extremely difficult to do both of these things properly at the same time (as was predicted by pedagogical experts, e.g. by Jason Prentice and his colleagues in the Writing Program). Nonetheless, planning for Learn from Anywhere to be the default mode for the delivery of classes in the Spring is continuing apace.

Michael Siegel of the BU School of Public Health

This guest post is by Professor Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health. The text was also provided in an open letter to the Dean of SPH.

This is perhaps the most difficult note I have written in my career. It comes out of a deep love for the School of Public Health, a love that has been engendered by 25 years (as of six days ago) of being a part of an institution with a singular mission to use scientific principles and methods to think about public health problems, to teach our students principles to go out and improve the world, and to demonstrate our commitment to public health and social justice by doing – that is, implementing these principles in our own actions and policies as a school.

It is based on a careful analysis of these principles that I have reached the conclusion that led me to convey this message:

It is essential that we rescind the decision to hold in-person/hybrid classes and transition immediately to online-only classes, not merely to protect the health of the community and the public, but to restore our ability to carry out our mission as a school of public health. 

Our decision to hold in-person/hybrid classes was made in late April, long before any reasonable public health institution would commit to such a policy, given that the pandemic was raging at the time and we had no idea of the status of COVID-19 infection in the fall. From the start, we were violating the principles of public health that we teach our students: make decisions based on the facts and only after a careful weighing of potential costs and benefits. The decision was made for financial reasons only.

It is critical to acknowledge that the Learn from Anywhere (LfA) theme was merely a post-hoc justification for a decision that had already been made for financial reasons. The idea was to propagandize the illusion that BU’s primary concern was fashioning an educational system marked by choice: each student could choose the educational mode that serves them best.

However, the reality is that LfA is about anything other than choice. It is about providing separate and unequal education to two groups of students, those who are most advantaged and those who are disadvantaged, under the guise of providing improved pedagogy. But the reality is—and I think I have the expertise to state this based on being a student of didactics and someone who has been recognized for my teaching over the past 25 years—that in the current environment, the hybrid model is far inferior to simply holding online-only classes.

The hybrid approach places the community at serious risk of health harm and offers no pedagogical advantages. I have made some difficult public health decisions over the course of my career, but this one seems simple: option A has no pedagogical advantages and potentially serious public health harms; option B has pedagogical advantages compared to option A and avoids those public health harms. 

This is why our colleagues at both other institutions of public health in Boston decided early on to provide online-only education. Both of those school’s wrote letters to their students explaining that the health of the community must come above other concerns.

Harvard wrote: “What is clear is that the safety of the Harvard Chan School community is paramount, that we cannot ensure a safe return to in-person instruction in a way that would facilitate learning, and that, when the right time comes, we will bring our students and instructors together back on campus in carefully planned phases. Our students—U.S. and international—must be able to continue their education without fear for their health, and many have expressed wanting to avoid unsafe travel and the need to care for family members. Our actions cannot worsen the public health crisis.”

Tufts wrote“The School of Medicine has determined that all MPH coursework offered in fall 2020 will be delivered remotely. This decision was made after extensive research and consideration of many different options. As a program which requires no on-campus clinical training, the MPH program has the ability to take advantage of remote delivery without compromising course quality. By moving to remote instruction, we hope to provide you with the flexibility to decide when and how to relocate to Boston without compromising your health or your budgets. Since we are located in the heart of an urban center, this decision also allows for more effective social distancing and will contribute to city-wide efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and to protecting the health of the Tufts community.”

To be clear, at BU, it was financial concerns that over-rode public health considerations. Our letter was not: “We are going to protect the health of our community.” Instead, it was: “Look – we’re still offering in-person classes next fall. So there’s no need for you to take a year off or to enroll at a different school.”

Along the way to that decision, a number of basic public health principles were violated:

1. In public health, we don’t provide protection only to the least vulnerable.

One of the principles of public health practice is that when we develop policies to protect the population (whether it be a state, city, school, etc.) from recognized health hazards, we do not just protect the people who are least vulnerable to the hazard. We protect the entire population, including and especially those who are most vulnerable to the hazard.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the opposite of what BUSPH is doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The School is basically saying: “We are going to protect only the members of our community who are not especially vulnerable to this infection. They will be able to attend classes in person. But the members of the community who are especially vulnerable to this infection can choose to attend classes online.” This is, in fact, precisely what we are doing. Let each person decide based on how vulnerable they are.

Make no mistake about it. LfA is not about giving students the choice to pick the educational mode that serves them best. At its root, it is about separating out students who are more vulnerable to respiratory disease and more anxious about it and those who are less vulnerable and less anxious.

This is not public health! In public health, we either offer a safe working and learning environment for our community, or we don’t. And if we can’t offer it, then we don’t offer it to some and not to others. In particular, we do not offer a safe working environment to the less vulnerable and force the vulnerable out of the workplace/classroom. 

2. In public health, we don’t provide separate and unequal services for different groups, especially in a way that is disproportionately associated with race. We don’t implement racist policies.

It’s unfortunate for us not to appreciate that many students have medical conditions, are taking care of vulnerable family members, or can’t afford to avoid public transportation options that would put them at risk. These students don’t really have a choice to learn from “anywhere.” So instead, we are providing them with separate and unequal services, depriving them of the opportunity to interact in person with their professors, for example. 

How is this different from deciding that because of severe financial problems, we will not be able to fix the elevator in Talbot, so we are implemented a Learn from Anywhere approach for Talbot classes? Students can choose the option that best meets their educational needs. If you are advantaged enough to be able to walk up the stairs, then you are welcome to join us in person. If you are disabled, then don’t worry – there is still the online option for you.

This policy is inherently discriminatory. And because we know that students of color are more likely to have all three of the above concerns (medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and sickle cell anemia), vulnerable family members they need to take care of, and fewer financial resources), this now becomes a racist policy.

Implementing a Learn from Anywhere system of education this fall will disproportionately endanger the lives of Black and Brown people in our community — both the BU community and the larger South End community. As a school of public health, we should be doing everything we can to minimize the burden of COVID-19 in the South End and Roxbury communities with which we share our neighborhood. In the last two weeks, there were 691 cases in Boston, an increase from the prior two-week period. However, instead of doing our part by not bringing hundreds of students onto campus, we insisted on doing so, based on a decision that we forced upon ourselves way back in April.

Instead of speaking out throughout the summer to urge other colleges and universities to hold online classes instead of returning hundreds of thousands of college students back to campus, we remained silent because our hands were tied: we had already committed to bringing our own students back. 

In doing so, we required maintenance staff – also disproportionately employees of color – to put themselves in harm’s way by doing the meticulous, time-consuming, and exhausting cleaning work to make it possible for our students to attend classes in person. 

And finally, we implemented a racially discriminatory hiring policy for teaching assistants by which in order to be hired, you needed to be able to go into the classroom all semester, something that is not possible for those who are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 (i.e., BIPOC). 

We can do all the self-reflection and self-learning that we want, but if we remain silent while the School implements a racist policy that threatens the health of neighborhoods made up predominantly of people of color, what good is that self-reflection doing? If the School mandates diversity and inclusion training on the one hand, but on the other hand, implements a racist policy that disproportionately disadvantages people of color, what good is that training doing?

“So basically what the school is saying through this policy – not intentionally obviously – but what we’re saying is that having racial justice in our classroom is not worth paying $250,000 for, that’s what they’re saying, they’re putting a price tag on racial justice so it makes us hypocritical right because on the one hand we’re going out there and saying, “Hey, this is a school that prides itself on social justice. This is what we do. This is our theme. This is what makes us special. This is what makes us different from other schools.” Except if it costs us more than $250,000. Then forget about that, we forget the racial justice, never mind. Right. That’s essentially what we’re saying.” (excerpt from my talk to the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps)

3. We don’t put financial interests above health

Given the decision that the School of Public Health made back in April to hold in-person classes using a hybrid format, the safety and health of the full community is clearly not the priority. Nor is the priority to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all BU faculty, staff, and students.

Were that the case, the School would have either: (1) waited until later in the summer when it had a clearer idea what the situation would be in the fall to make any decision; or (2) followed the lead of both Tufts and Harvard’s MPH programs which announced in June that they would be online-only in order to most effectively protect the health of their entire communities.

I would respect the decision a lot more if we were simply honest with ourselves and admitted that it was made for financial reasons. But deceiving ourselves into thinking that this was first and foremost a public health decision is a disservice to our entire community. And it teaches just the wrong lesson to our incoming students.

The reality is that we made a decision to place our finances above the health of the community. In doing so, it undermined the basis for our credibility in encouraging others to take actions that promote public health. In almost every public health issue, it comes down to a trade-off between financial concerns and health concerns. How can we as a School or members of this School community now go out into the field and tell other institutions that they have to place health above financial concerns when we ourselves have done the opposite?

The bottom line is that the decision to hold in-person classes this fall not only undermines public health principles, but it also takes us far from our mission as a School and makes it impossible to have credibility when trying to carry out this mission.

4. We don’t make decisions without knowing the facts

Public health decisions should be evidence-based. That is, they should be based on the best available scientific evidence. It also seems to me that public health experts agree that decisions regarding the opening of facilities during the pandemic should not be made based on the idea of setting a fixed schedule in advance, but should instead be real-time decisions that are made separately for each phase of opening at the appropriate time and based on actual parameters of the spread of disease, rate of change in new cases, trends in percentage of positive test results, hospital and ICU capacity, and so on. 

However, the School of Public Health made a decision last April to commit to having in-person classes this fall. I view this to be an irresponsible decision because we did not have the necessary evidence available to be able to make such a decision. At the time the decision was made, we had no idea how widespread the pandemic would be in September and no idea what any of the actual parameters would be. Without that information, how could we commit ourselves to holding in-person classes?

As soon as the marketing for the School of Public Health’s new Learn from Anywhere (LfA) system came out, it was already apparent to me that this was simply a post-hoc justification for a decision that had already been made.

The decision to offer hybrid classes, made before even considering the implications and ramifications (including the cost and use of resources) of implementing in-person classes this fall, was clearly made first, with the LfA propaganda coming second in an attempt to justify what was obviously a premature and irresponsible public health decision.

5. We don’t sacrifice our public health mission.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary mission of the School of Public Health (SPH) should be to try to minimize the morbidity and mortality from this disease. However, the decision to hold hybrid (“learn from anywhere”) classes this fall does exactly the opposite. 

Of the choices available to the School (which were only two: hybrid or online-only), this choice maximizes the potential exposure of the SPH community. But it goes far beyond that. It also maximizes the potential exposure of everyone we come in close contact with, including our families, friends, and the general public. Given the tremendous toll that COVID-19 has already taken (more than 180,000 deaths in less than six months) and the extremely high level of risk that there will be a second surge of cases this fall, it is unconscionable that we would choose the option that maximizes the potential impact on morbidity and mortality in both the SPH and the overall community.

It is for this reason that I believe this decision forsakes the School’s primary mission, which is to save lives. Right now, the single most important thing we can do as a School to save lives is to minimize exposure to the virus to the greatest extent possible. With respect to exposure in the classroom, the only option that is consistent with the School’s mission would have been to move to online-only classes for the fall semester. 

Sacrificing your mission is substantial, so to what did we make this sacrifice? 

The answer is quite simple: money.

The only benefit of announcing back in the late spring that we were going to have hybrid classes this fall was a financial one. There was a concern that if admitted students believed that we were going to have online classes, many of them would have deferred their admission or chosen to attend a different school. It was the potential loss of these tuition dollars that the School’s mission was weighed against. And the decision came down clearly on the side of our financial interests, rather than on the side of being true to our mission and protecting the public’s health.

There is a second way in which the decision essentially forced us to abandon our mission. Because we had committed to opening our classrooms in September, we could not be a credible voice warning about schools opening up too soon in the fall. How could we be taken seriously if we emphasized the importance of delaying the decision to reopen schools until certain parameters were met when we had already committed to opening our own classrooms?

Where is the School of Public Health in countering the president’s message that schools must open, unconditionally, in the fall? We were nowhere to be seen because our own premature decision to open our classrooms forced us to abdicate our public health mission.

6. We don’t force people to put their health at risk.

A core principle of public health is that we create conditions under which people have the agency to make their own informed and voluntary decisions about what substantial health risks to take. While we certainly provided that option to students, we did not provide it to faculty members and certain staff, including maintenance workers and teaching assistants. Teaching assistants who indicated that they did not want to take the risk of exposing themselves to a potentially serious or even deadly infection were told that they were not eligible for the position.

7. We don’t make the absence of health conditions a prerequisite for employment.

This stems from #6 above. Teaching assistants who indicated that they did not want to take the risk of exposing themselves to a potentially serious or even deadly infection were told that they were not eligible for the position. Essentially, this means that teaching assistants with medical conditions that put them at high risk of COVID complications were systematically excluded from employment as TA’s this semester.

Conclusion

Fortunately, there is an easy way to correct all of the above. There is still time to announce a transition to virtual classes at SPH.

(For more detailed commentaries on many of the above issues, please feel free to go to my blog, entitled “Sacrificing Our Principles: Public Health and Social Justice Give Way to Money and Marketing.”)

BU’s Dashboard is Misleading, and this Matters

The following text recently appeared in a public relations piece published by Boston University:

[President] Brown says the dashboard will help answer the important question: in terms of infection rate, ‘is BU better off or worse off than the community at large? That’s the transparency we need to know, and the community around us needs to know.’”

If the university intends that the COVID-19 Dashboard be used in this way then why is that dashboard presently showing statistics in a misleading fashion? Is this the result of an intention to deceive the public when it comes to an extremely serious public health issue, rather than provide genuine transparency, or is it simply the result of incompetence? Have BU’s own scientists and public health experts tried telling BU’s leaders that they are displaying misleading statistics on the Dashboard, or are they content for this affront to honest public health efforts to continue?

There are many things that can be criticized about the BU Dashboard. The bar graph at the top is not well-designed. Results are only being reported for students at the moment, and employees have been left out for now (employee data will apparently be provided later). These things are not what I am most worried about. The most pressing problem is that the data is not really comparative, despite the misleading heading, “Comparative Statistics: Averages.”


Students are being tested twice a week. People in the general community are rarely tested more than once. This means that the BU percentages should not be based on number of positive tests / number of tests, but should instead be based on number of positive tests / number of people tested. The wrong denominator is being used, hence any comparisons with the general population made on the basis of this dashboard will be misleading.

The fact is that the choice of denominator makes the statistics on display here misleading to a general audience. This use of statistics becomes even more problematic when one thinks about this part of the page, which is displayed near the top of the dashboard:


The “Cumulative from July 27, 2020” chart is problematic partly because it includes the university’s test run using locally based asymptomatic subjects that occurred before the undergraduate students started coming back. More importantly, many people have been tested multiple times now. The percentage of positive tests in this chart becomes more and more deceptive as time goes by, because the denominator will go up by two for each student who is being retested every week. No wonder the positive test percentage is so small! And it will keep getting smaller as time goes by. On the other hand, if the denominator used here were number of people tested, the positive test percentage would go up over time, at least after the number of people tested reaches the number that are going to be here all term (assuming that COVID-19 isn’t completely stopped in its tracks). This would not prevent BU from arguing its testing program is working well (if it is working well), because if the rate at which the positive test percentages increase over time is kept very low, that is something that can be held up for everyone to pay attention to.

There are also problems when it comes to making statistical comparisons with the general population that will continue even if the right denominator (number of people tested) starts to be used, as it should be. In particular, there is the selection bias that comes from the fact that people in the general population usually only get tested if they appear to have COVID-19 symptoms. This means that, when tested, people in the general population are already much more likely to have COVID-19 than people at BU who are mostly being tested when they are asymptomatic.

It might be that an improved, less misleading Dashboard would still suggest that BU is doing very well because of its testing program. Suppose BU doesn’t satisfactorily fix its Dashboard, but everything works out well this semester anyway, when it comes to the actual rate of infection. Might not BU’s leaders then be able to justifiably declare, “SEE, you didn’t need to worry about the Dashboard!” No. We are a university. University research should not be corrupted by misleading PR. Even if things work out well when it comes to the present public health crisis, BU will still be highly criticizable for not fixing this Dashboard, if it doesn’t do so.

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.

BU’s Information Policy is Inadequate for a Pandemic

UPDATE: The public health expert who is referred to below and who is the author of the quoted text and the document that I link to is Professor Michael Siegel. At the time this blog post was written he wished to remain anonymous.

Does Boston University possess a pandemic information policy? If some such policy statement exists, does it outline a satisfactory policy? If it does, is that policy being properly followed? There are signs that clearly indicate that there is no good pandemic information policy being followed at the moment.

It seems to me that it is crucial to have regular communications provided to the whole BU community, and that such communications be honest and informative. The absence of such communications, especially at this time, undermines trust in our institution. It prevents people from learning what they need to learn in order to make confident, well-informed decisions that contribute to and protect the general wellbeing of the community, and it prevents them from getting on with their work or study without being in a state of anxiety, or simply being dissatisfied with things that are happening (or seem to be happening) at BU.

But what do I know? I’m just an ethicist who normally does research at the fairly theoretical end of the subject. I decided to reach out to a well-respected public health expert at BU. Here is what this expert said: 

“The importance of clear, up-to-date, and accurate information is essential during an outbreak or pandemic, and there is a good body of public health scholarship on precisely this issue. Two other elements that are critical are honesty and transparency. It is critical for the messengers to build trust with the audience, and when honesty or even just transparency is lacking, it undermines that trust, which leads to much less effective communications. At a national level, I am convinced that this has played a huge role in the lower rates of compliance than one would have expected given the circumstances.

At any rate, as far as sources, to start there is the CDC’s guidelines on public communication during an outbreak. It includes a nice “Do’s and Don’ts” table (12.1), and it looks like the University has almost uniformly been following the Don’ts. The CDC also has an emergency communication guidebook. Of particular interest are the sections on credibility and trust on pages 7 and 8. For example:

‘Your message delivery can make or break your credibility. This will affect how audiences react to your initial message and all communications that follow. Two influencers of credibility are the speed of release and the accuracy of information. 

This is the first part of the response I received from the BU public health specialist that I contacted. You can read the full response here

Let me acknowledge that the Covid-19 Testing Data Dashboard is now online, and that, despite some significant problems with it – such as the PR spin that comes from showing total number of people who have tested positive / total number of tests, rather than total number of people who have tested positive / total number of people tested – this is a good thing (as is the testing program, of course). There is also the Back to BU guide. But good information policy isn’t just about providing a dashboard and a general guide. At the moment, new communications about various important developments at the university slowly trickle down from the Provost’s office to Deans across the different colleges, who then tailor or select bits of information in various ways which they then provide to department chairs, who then may or may not provide their department members with this information (this isn’t meant as a criticism of chairs; in many communications to chairs that I’ve seen, it isn’t clear from the communication itself whether or not it is being recommended that they share the communication with department members, and often chairs err on the side of caution and don’t share them). Other bits of information come out in town hall meetings with students, and faculty only hear about them because of Twitter, or the Daily Free Press. BU Public Relations then says something in response that is often unhelpful, and sometimes misleading or deceptive (one example of this is detailed here). And sometimes administrative staff reveal things we should have all been informed about to particular people who they happen to come into contact with. 

Here is a constructive proposal. BU should task an appropriate individual, with a background that is in Public Health, rather than Public Relations, who is separate from the Provost’s office and BU Public Relations, to send out daily bulletins to all employees and students, containing information about new policies, changes in policies, events on campus relevant to efforts to control the spread of Covid-19, etc. In cases where policies are under review, it could be acknowledged that this is the case, rather than there being silence on an issue. There could also be an email address or Twitter feed to provide a venue for questions to be submitted. Here are some examples of things that might be said right now in such a bulletin (I have done my best to state these truthfully; if I have made mistakes I am happy to make corrections):

“The policy that instructors will not be notified if a student who has been attending their in-person class tests positive for Covid-19 is presently being reconsidered. We realize this is an important matter, and we hope to let everyone know the outcome of this review process as soon as possible.” [see this article]

“The idea that real time CO2 testing devices should be made widely available for instructors to use in classrooms is presently under consideration.” [see this post]

“We apologize for not providing everyone with a clear message regarding our faculty and staff pledge. To be clear: faculty and staff are not required to commit to our pledge, although we encourage them to commit themselves to it. We will not be keeping information on who has agreed to the pledge and who hasn’t. Everyone is bound by our protocols, whether or not they commit to the pledge.” [see this post]

“The policy regarding masks is still under review – we may still ban certain types of masks from being used indoors, and not merely recommend that they not be used – and we will provide further information as soon as a decision on this matter has been made.” [see this article]

“BU Information Technology was supposed to send everyone a heads up on August 14 regarding the fact that the Healthway daily testing and attestation site would be going online the next day; unfortunately, due to a technical error, many people did not receive this communication. We apologize for this. The email can be read here.” [Link to email]

“We did say that there would be a phone app. We have since changed our plans, because of a hurdle with getting such an app into app stores quickly enough. We apologize for any disappointment this might cause, but we will not be providing such an app, despite what is still said in some places on the BU website.” [see this article

“We realize a serious concern has been raised regarding the fact that for certain rooms, the specification for the maximum number of students that can fit in the room has recently increased. We found we were able to fit even more people in the room, following the six foot social distancing rule.” [This policy is a bad idea, and the recent increase in numbers surprising, but it would have been a good idea to at least tell everyone about this.]

These are just a few recent examples that I have selected because they highlight recent changes and pressing problems, of varying degrees of importance. I am not suggesting that all messages that might might be put in a daily digest sent to everyone in the university community would need to concern pressing issues, but the establishment of this practice might go a long way to preventing the communications mishaps we have been seeing happening at BU in recent times. These mishaps, a number of them previously reported on this website, have been undermining trust in the university. Even if that were not the case, BU should be aiming to properly follow public health guidelines regarding information policies during a pandemic.

UPDATE 1, August 24: Dean Klapperich has kindly commented on the issue of the cumulative totals on the Covid-19 Dashboard being misleading, due to the fact that the denominator is number of tests, rather than number of people tested. She has indicated that sometime after September 6, we should see the statistics we need on the dashboard to make more useful comparisons with the general population. It sounds like we are unlikely to have this information until at least one week into semester. She rejects the use of “misleading”.

UPDATE 2, August 24: I agree that the document mentioned below is completely unacceptable. I have confirmed it was distributed to students, and I have the original copy. The version now online for this restricted group has been changed: there is now no mention of skirt length, and a face mask rule has been added. While it is a very good thing that the document was quickly changed, the damage has been done (since it was provided to student moderators), and quickly changing a document without issuing a public correction or apology – the second would be appropriate in this case – is precisely the kind of thing you do when you have an inadequate information policy.

Penalizing Faculty who will be Teaching Remotely

BU faculty have been assigned testing categories. Those of us who successfully applied for workplace adjustments, in order to be able to teach remotely, were initially informed that this meant that, by default, we would be in Category 4, and that we would therefore not be receiving any testing at BU and would not be able to visit our offices. We were told “if a faculty member has been approved for a workplace adjustment that is fully remote teaching, then that faculty member is not permitted to return to campus for any reason this fall, including performing research.” This seemed unnecessary, unjustified (at least, no justification has been provided), bad for teaching and research at the university, and possibly retaliatory. We did not know this would happen when we applied for workplace adjustments. We are not only teachers, but also researchers who use offices for our work (often because we have children at home), but now it seemed we would be excluded from doing research on campus for no good reason.

Last week, chairs were asked to consult with individual faculty members regarding which category they would be assigned, and to report the categories to the deans. In some cases at least, chairs were providing faculty teaching remotely with the option to be assigned to category 3. At the end of the week (August 14), an email was sent from the CAS Dean’s office that contained questions and answers, including “Can testing categories be changed at a later date? Yes, categories may be updated as circumstances change.

More informally, we were told last week that it would be possible to later change to Category 3 if we wished, through asking one’s department chair for a change to be made. Some chairs were last week accepting requests to be placed in Category 3 from people who will be teaching remotely, but many people figured that they would only need to use their offices in a way that does not involve coming into contact with others, so they remained in Category 4. Also, the instructions for Category 3 online specify that, for people in this category, “job duties require very limited contact with students,” and some took this to mean that they are not eligible for Category 3 (because they will not even have limited contact with students). In any case, because we were told a change would be easy to make, many people didn’t worry too much about the fact that they were placed in Category 4 by default.

Today (August 20), an email was sent to all CAS chairs from the CAS Dean’s office that repeats the quotation “if a faculty member has been approved for a workplace adjustment that is fully remote teaching, then that faculty member is not permitted to return to campus for any reason this fall, including performing research,” and states that the Provost will allow a “limited number of exceptions” (I assume there will be similar messages sent out in other colleges). In order to apply for one of these limited number of exceptions, one must prepare a plan that provides details of what one plans to do on campus and a justification for why one needs to be on campus, and one must submit it to a particular dean, who will then review the request. All such requests must be submitted in the next five days (by August 25). If an exception is approved, the faculty member may be moved from Category 4 to Category 3.

This leaves faculty in a completely unsatisfactory position. We should not need to write a proposal that we must submit in five days to compete for one of a limited number of exceptions that might then allow us to visit our offices to pick up books. We were led to believe it would be a straightforward matter to change from Category 4 to Category 3, but now we find out that is not the case. And we can step back and ask: Why does the university want us not to be doing research on campus this semester? And is the university aiming to make many faculty worse teachers than they might otherwise be? Many faculty have all their teaching materials stored in their offices, but now they are not allowed to return to them to prepare for teaching.

The Students are and will be Disappointed

I have just had an op-ed I wrote published in Inside Higher Education, “False Advertising and the In-Person Experience” (original title: “The Students will be Disappointed”). Here is a central passage:

Let us assume, since administrators are saying this, that most students presently want the option to be able to take classes in person. The crucial question is: Why should we think such preferences will not shift substantially once students experience socially distanced, mask-to-mask classes — or stay at home watching a bad video feed of an instructor whose attention is divided, speaking through a mask? Bear in mind that it will soon become apparent to students that if everyone opts to stay away from the classroom, instructors will be able to remove their masks, and the online alternative will then be more straightforward and relaxed. Indeed, instructors can and probably should begin the semester by pointing this out to students.

On August 5, Boston University junior Sophia Poteet sent an extremely well-composed letter to a number of BU administrators, including the President and the Provost, responding to the internal email that had been sent to faculty at BU in an effort to have faculty craft their communications with students in a way that suits the university’s public relations goals. One week later, Sophia has yet to receive a reply to her letter.* When it started to become apparent to her that she would probably never receive a reply, she contacted the Daily Free Press, who agreed to publish her letter. They published “A Letter to Dean Bizup” yesterday. Here are a few select quotations from the letter:

I was shocked by the condescension, blatant prioritization of money over student experience and utter lack of respect for both students and faculty displayed within the memo. I understand the desire to maintain a calm environment, allay fears and create a cohesive message. However, the language… goes beyond any of those aims. It displays an intense disrespect for the intelligence of both BU’s students and faculty, and clearly prioritizes publicity and public opinion over the actual learning experience of students. … The attempt to censor faculty and their communication with students is not only misguided and deceptive, but is also actively harmful to BU students and their ability to thrive in their education this semester. … If [last semester] my professors had solely focused on the “positive aspects of their courses and teaching methods,” as you advised in your memo, I do not know if I would have made it through the semester. … When you wrote “it is better to be vague than to emphasize uncertainties to be resolved,” you demonstrated that you have little understanding of students’ decision-making processes… In every letter BU has released so far during the pandemic, it was not the acknowledgments of uncertainty but rather the vague statements that were ripped to shreds in student discussions, mocked on social media… Personally, this memo has dramatically reduced my level of trust in the BU administration and the information it puts out. … [It] seems to make clear that you would like to prevent students from becoming fully aware of the level to which professors objected, perhaps so that students do not realize that the LfA model was crafted out of financial concerns rather than the desire to create the best educational experience possible. … I know that many other BU students feel similarly… I hope that in future communications, you and the rest of the University will display a deeper level of thoughtfulness and respect toward both faculty and students.

Yesterday, Faculty Council met, and President Brown and a team involved in campus reopening plans were present to answer questions. Contacts on Faculty Council have told me about a number of the questions and responses. Let me briefly mention just one important issue among many that were discussed. When pressed on the contact tracing procedures that will be put in place in the coming weeks, the President and his team declared that classroom instructors would not be informed when a student in one of their classes tests positive for Covid-19. The justification that was presented for this decision was that instructors and other students in a classroom will not normally count as “close” contacts, since people will be observing the six feet social distancing rule in class, and only “close” contacts matter for contact tracing purposes. What this reasoning completely ignores is everything we now know about the transmission of Covid-19 indoors. So much for the much touted idea that BU’s reopening plans are relying on cutting edge science. Here is a relevant quotation from an article in yesterday’s New York Times:

‘We know that indoors, those distance rules don’t matter anymore,’ Dr. Schofield said. It takes about five minutes for small aerosols to traverse the room even in still air, she added. The six-foot minimum is ‘misleading, because people think they are protected indoors and they’re really not,’ she said.

In conclusion: #fckitwontcutit, BU!

*Sophia’s experience reminds me of the fact that Russell Powell and I have never received a reply (not even acknowledging receipt) to our open letter to the President and Provost of June 2, or a later letter, sent on June 15, providing the petition that now has more than 1500 signatures.

UPDATE 1: On August 13, The Daily Free Press published a response from Dean Bizup.
UPDATE 2: On August 14, The Daily Free Press published “Will faculty be told if a student tests positive for COVID-19? BU says it’s still not sure.

A Suggestion for Keeping Classes Safe, and Other Issues

I have spent a good deal of time in the last few days trying to figure out how to help my department (and anyone else that asks) buy masks that are safe enough for indoor use during this pandemic. It turns out that it is very difficult to ensure that one is buying KN95 or N95 masks that are not fake. This is why Professor Nathan Phillips thinks the university should be purchasing KN95 masks in bulk for all non-remote teachers at the university, with expert assistance. I would add that I think the university actually has a moral obligation to do this, given that they are imposing significant risks on their own employees by making them teach in classrooms, when, in most cases at least, there is a pedagogically preferable method available (remote teaching). In not providing crucial PPE, the university is diverging from the behavior of employers in other professions and industries.

Professor Phillips has also suggested to me that there is another thing that BU could do to help make classroom teaching safer, and I think that teachers and students should be insisting that they do it. Given the now well-known problems with ventilation in many classrooms in the university, the university should be providing to teachers machines that test for the extent of CO2 build up (wherever CO2 builds up, we can conclude that the airflow situation is dangerous). These devices are apparently not difficult to learn to use, and can be bought for about $200 each. Teachers might bring one to class, run a test, and then tell everyone to leave the class if the CO2 level is too high. Teaching for that class might then transition to being online until the airflow in the room can be improved, or an alternative classroom is located. The university is telling everybody not to worry about the ventilation issue, because the HVAC systems are being improved (even though it admits that a great many university buildings do not have HVAC systems). It should put its money where its mouth is, and provide enough of these devices to our university teachers to enable them to check their classrooms from time to time. Since I think it’s a safe bet that the university administration won’t do this, I recommend that individual departments now buy these devices and have their teachers ready to regularly check the CO2 levels in their classrooms when term starts. [UPDATE added on August 10: A number of experts from elsewhere are also now offering similar advice on Twitter. One expert recommends this $160 device in a useful article.]

Now for a couple of other items of interest. First, here is a question: will the university be telling us what percentage of students have elected to return to campus, based on the student payments that have now arrived? Harvard and MIT have provided this information to the public, but BU has not done so as yet.

I have been meaning for a while now to provide an update concerning the BU graduate student housing problem that I previously reported on, concerning the policy that graduate students are to be housed alongside undergraduate students who may have contracted Covid-19. On July 29, the Provost’s Office sent an official communication to BU Real Estate graduate student tenants clarifying the situation. It indicates that no undergraduate students who have tested positive will be housed in graduate student apartment buildings, but it also says that students who have been identified by contact tracing methods as being at risk and have initially tested negative will be housed in quarantine in private rooms in the graduate student buildings, because private rooms are not available elsewhere. The communication further states that graduate students who who wish to be released from the relevant real estate contracts will not be financially penalized. It is left unclear why BU feels it needs to jeopardize the health of graduate students, rather than, say, use hotel accommodation to temporarily house students, as Northeastern, for instance, is planning to do.

BU’s Mask Policy is Inadequate

This is a guest post by Professor Nathan Phillips, Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University.

In light of national and Massachusetts trends in COVID cases, the wisdom of re-opening BU in three weeks is becoming increasingly questionable. But if BU is going to re-open this fall, among all the safety measures it is taking, it needs to address a big safety gap in its present approach: its mask policy.

To cut to the chase, BU should make a bulk purchase of properly-vetted KN95 masks for the university community, as a key part of a prudent strategy to reduce risk of airborne transmission. Institutionally-vetted KN95 masks are preferable to N95 masks for BU because of a shortage of N95 masks that is due to the need to prioritize the requirements of front-line healthcare workers and first responders.

Our current policy is inadequate because it takes a collective action problem, and views it simply as an individual matter. Choices regarding masks matter for indoor airborne transmission, and leaving this type of decision to tens of thousands of individuals will lead to highly uneven individual choices that will have bad effects on the whole community. Currently, for example, the use of bandanas would be allowed. Bandanas are effective at preventing ballistic transmission, but poor at blocking viral aerosols. Even those who might choose a KN95 mask could easily buy a faulty one by mistake, as this recent report makes clear. BU needs a community-level solution to a community-level problem. Masks must be considered not just PPE, but Community Protective Equipment, and part and parcel of the university’s ventilation strategy.

I appreciate that BU has begun to address concerns about building ventilation in light of mounting evidence of the potential for airborne COVID transmission. While this is laudable, these steps, which include increasing air exchange rates and installing HVAC filters, are missing both the very first and the last lines of ventilation defense: masks. Properly fitted and filtered masks inhibit aerosol transmission both at the source, and at the end point of potential infection. If we are investing time and expense in retrofitting rooms with improved HVAC filters, we should also be considering the quality of facial filters.

A recent Harvard-Illinois IT study of COVID transmission on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship found that, despite good ventilation on this ship, airborne transmission was a likely major route of transmission. A NY Times review of this study states:

But good ventilation is not enough; the Diamond Princess was well ventilated and the air did not recirculate, the researchers noted. So wearing good-quality masks — standard surgical masks, or cloth masks with multiple layers rather than just one — will most likely be needed as well, even in well-ventilated spaces where people are keeping their distance.”

To be sure, the science is not settled and the cited study, a preprint, is one study, but the physical mechanisms posited as being involved make for a highly plausible causal account, and with the health and welfare of tens of thousands of people at BU on the line, as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across greater Boston at risk, use of the precautionary principle is strongly warranted. If a bulk order can procure vetted KN95 at $2/mask, this is well worth an $80,000 university investment in community safety (supposing we need masks for 40,000 people). While there are risks with extended use of respirators like N95, they have been recommended for re-use under conditions of scarcity.  Compliance and enforcement is an important related issue, but due diligence would mean providing at least one properly-vetted KN95 mask to every member of the university community.  

The mask I wear affects you; the mask you wear affects me; the masks we all wear potentially affect everyone in the BU community. We need a community-level solution to this problem.

Quarantine Requirements and Compliance Issues

I recently reported that BU was planning to merely recommend that students arriving from out of state enter quarantine for fourteen days, rather than require that they do so. Fortunately, this insufficiently cautious plan has had to change because, on July 24, MA Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order putting in place new quarantine regulations. Now, students arriving from overseas or any state that is not classified as one of the “lower-risk states” (presently only eight states are so qualified) must either quarantine for 14 days, or provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test that was taken no longer than 72 hours before arrival in the state. People who do not comply with this order may be fined $500 per day. The Mayor of Boston, Martin J. Walsh, responded to this news by indicating that although he takes it to be good news, he is still very concerned about the many students that will be descending on the greater Boston area (as many as 170,000, according to the Boston Globe), and that he thinks, ideally, students should quarantine for two weeks at home and then quarantine again for two weeks in Boston, before being tested.

On July 27, the BU President sent faculty and staff a statement regarding testing protocols and compliance issues. It contains a fair amount of information. I will comment on just one important piece of news contained in the statement. President Brown makes it clear that there is a requirement on everyone who returns to campus to follow protocols regarding quarantine, face covering rules, testing, etc. The protocols will be provided in a document that all students will be required to commit themselves to. It is said that they will do so through a “digital agreement.” I take it that such an agreement will involve scrolling to the end of a document and pressing a button that says something like “I agree to abide by these conditions” (much as one does when one installs computer software, although one might hope students will actually read this text more carefully than people usually do when they install software). Unsurprisingly, I am highly skeptical that this and the public campaigns also mentioned will ensure sufficient compliance with the necessary protocols (especially compliance outside of the classroom). Here is an additional concern. I express it with caution, lest I be accused of paranoia. Perhaps this digital agreement or contract, which all students will be required to accept if they wish to remain on campus, will also include text that amounts to a waiver, indemnifying the university from subsequent law suits. I do not say this will happen. As far as I am aware, BU has not so far indicated it will be joining other universities that are asking for waivers to be signed by students.

Comments regarding workplace adjustments have been coming in (please keep submitting them). Many people still haven’t heard whether or not they will be provided with a workplace adjustment. One troubling development on this front is that, for multiple faculty members, medical documentation provided by doctors to BU has gone missing (applicants are required to have doctors fax a form directly to HR). This may mean some people who are in CDC-recognized high-risk categories will have their requests to teach online denied.

In other news, BU Real Estate has declined to reverse course with respect to its plans to house regular graduate students alongside students suspected of being infected with Covid-19, despite the efforts of at least one dean and a representative from the Provost’s office. As a result, graduate students have set up a petition for all who are concerned about this development to sign, and are also undertaking a survey of graduate students.

Ventilation Issues and BU Classrooms

This is a guest post by Dr Sarabeth Buckley, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cambridge University. She recently received a PhD from BU’s Earth and Environment Department, where her research focused on ventilation and rooftop gardens.

Towards the beginning of the whole pandemic in early February, there was a story that came out of Hong Kong that was particularly frightening. In a large apartment building, one person on one floor initially tested positive for Covid-19. The virus was still primarily circulating in China at the time. What was scary was that someone ten floors away also then tested positive and that although they did not know each other and had not had any contact, their apartments did share some pipes and there was a leak in the second apartment. This was a very early indication that Covid-19 might be airborne.

WHO denied this, saying that the evidence overall suggested Covid-19 was not airborne. It took five whole months for this article, citing this paper to come out. The article says coronavirus is, in fact, airborne. We all need to take this fact seriously. When anyone coughs they release water droplets of different sizes. Some of these are large and they will fall right to the ground. Others are very tiny, around five μm, which is too tiny to see. Droplets of this size can travel tens of meters away from the person who exhaled them, which is a much longer distance than the length of a normal room, and definitely longer than the length of many of our small BU classrooms. Scientists had hoped that Covid-19 viral particles would not be able to survive in these tiny droplets and might only survive in the bigger droplets that people expel directly, next to themselves. If this had turned out to be the case, it would be enough to just stay out of spitting range of people while sitting inside.

The article states that Covid-19 can survive in these tiny droplets for three hours, which is longer than any of the classes I ever took at BU. This means that if you are in a room where someone who is infected with Covid-19 has been, even if you are on the other side of a large room, you could still catch the virus by breathing in air that someone, perhaps in an earlier class, breathed out a good couple of hours ago. I think about all the classes I took at BU and the little rows of desks a foot or two away. Even if half or more of those desks are removed and the ten people left coming to in-person classes all sit awkwardly, far apart, one person being infected means some portion of the air in the class is going to contain viral particles.

Before the July 4 article, the WHO’s official statement was still that the virus was only airborne in hospitals after medical procedures. It took 239 scientists in 32 countries writing an open letter, explaining the way in which Covid-19 is airborne, for this discovery to be taken seriously. 

Masks certainly help, but they can’t prevent you from breathing in particles. They’re not sealed. When you breathe in while wearing a mask, you can feel the slightly cooler air rushing in through the little areas on the sides of your nose where the mask isn’t quite flush with your skin, and this air hasn’t gone through the cloth. What masks do help with is preventing your own water droplets from being sent off to mingle in the air. Therefore, if everyone wears a mask the entire time they are around other people, then, hypothetically, all of the viral particles infected people breathe out should be caught on the inside of the mask fabric and stop their journey there.

There are a few other things that can be done. Classrooms can be cleaned very frequently with cleaning implements like ultraviolet lights, for example. But one of the most important things that can be done is ensuring that rooms have good ventilation. If potentially contaminated air is being continuously pulled out, recycled air is heavily filtered, and new fresh air without Covid-19 is pushed in at a fast enough rate, this should help get rid of the viral particles twirling about above our heads, threatening to infect us.

This is basically about trying to create a situation reminiscent of an outdoor environment, where the air is moving around so much that it fairly quickly whisks away any viral particles just hanging about (unless you are within direct firing range). This is where some of my work comes in. The recommended ventilation level for removing Covid-19 particles is thirty cubic feet per minute per person (Allen and Macomber, 2020), but how do you know what the current ventilation rate is?

A primary method for testing what ventilation rates actually are is measuring CO2 concentrations in rooms with multiple people in them. This is because, as everyone knows, people are constantly breathing out large amounts of CO2 that build up in confined spaces like classrooms; the more people, the more CO2 builds up. If CO2 concentrations get too high, this indicates that ventilation is not sufficient. Governing bodies set limits for CO2 concentrations in rooms. Generally these are:

5000 ppm – Upper limit of what should ever be found (ACGIH, 1999; OSHA, 1997)

1000 ppm – Suggested limit for classrooms, in particular (ASHRAE, 1989)

800 ppm – Suggested limit in Massachusetts (MADPH, 2020)

As part of my PhD research, I took CO2 measurements in BU classrooms to understand how well ventilation there is working. You can see for yourself how well some of the rooms in the College of Arts and Sciences building did on this test.

Macintosh HD:Users:Sarabeth:Desktop:MY DOCUMENTS:Personal:Activism:Covid19:BU:CAS Classroom CO2.png


Each color is CO2 measurements taken in a different classroom over the course of a week. They obviously go far above the 800 and 1000 ppm limits.

From one perspective, CO2 can affect how well you perform mentally, meaning high concentrations can make you a bit slow and sleepy, and you have probably experienced this first hand. High concentrations are also known to be associated with other pollutants, such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, or, as is critical in this case, biological contaminants. This is usually referred to as Sick Building Syndrome, but in the present context, you might as well just call it Covid-19.

What I found was a sign that current ventilation, at least in CAS classrooms, is far from efficient enough to deal with even normal contaminants, let alone something as contagious and virulent as Covid-19. This is good and bad. It means BU is not ready for normal classes at this point, but it highlights a clear step BU must take in order to make the campus safe in the fall. At this point, BU has said they will be doing “a comprehensive review of all HVAC systems, upgrading filters as needed.” This must include increasing ventilation rates and actively monitoring CO2 concentrations in these rooms, in order to keep tabs on whether or not ventilation is actually functioning at a high enough level. There are even third parties who BU could hire to help them test building ventilation and set up a system that will keep everyone safe. They just need to make this a priority and let us know what their plan is.

– ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists). (2011). TLVs and BEIs. Cincinnati, OH: American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
– Allen J. and J. Macomber. Healthy Building: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020.
– ASHRAE. 1989. Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality. American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. ANSI/ASHRAE 62-1989.
– MA EOHHS (Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services). (May 8th 2020). Massachusetts Environmental Public Health Tracking: Ventilation. https://matracking.ehs.state.ma.us/Environmental-Data/indoor-air-quality/ventilation.html
– OSHA. 1997. Limits for Air Contaminants. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Code of Federal Regulations. 29 C.F.R 1910.1000 Table Z-1-A.

Workplace Adjustment Requests Update, with Invitation to Provide Comments

On Tuesday, July 21, department chairs at Boston University were sent a memo that made a number of them angry. The memo was accompanied by a list of their department members who had filed workplace adjustment requests, indicating whether the HR Work Adjustment Request Team (WART) had decided they met the CDC high-risk category guidelines for Covid-19, or had noted instead that the department member had filed a request that involved entering reasons for wanting an accommodation in the “Other” box provided on the workplace adjustment request form. A clear implication of the memo is that the remote learning option must remain the exception, rather than the rule. The university has said that approval of requests for courses to be taught wholly online, rather than in conformity with the hybrid Learn from Anywhere approach, should be kept to a minimum. The memo asked chairs to talk to all department members asking for workplace adjustments, including those that HR has now determined meet the CDC high-risk criteria, to see if they might be persuaded to teach their courses non-remotely, in conformity with the LfA model. It might be inferred from this memo that the university is concerned that they have received too many workplace adjustment requests (from their perspective). This request to go back to people who have already had their doctors provide medical notes, and who HR have determined are eligible for workplace adjustments, was thought by at least some chairs to be an outrageous request, and some CAS chairs said as much in an unscheduled meeting the next day.

In a subsequent email to chairs that might reasonably be interpreted as involving back-pedaling (sent after the CAS chairs meeting, on July 22), administrators indicated that faculty who HR has confirmed meet CDC guidelines will, in fact, be permitted to teach their courses online. However, it is still unclear what will happen to those applications where faculty provided their reasons for a request in the “Other” box. In the afternoon on July 22, faculty who had requested workplace adjustments received individual email messages from Faculty Actions indicating that WART had confirmed that the faculty member falls in a CDC high-risk category. It appears graduate student teachers have yet to receive any responses, and that their requests will be processed after faculty requests have been processed.

What types of good reasons might have been provided in the “Other” box? Two that are particularly important are concerns with respect to childcare and care of elderly family members, and concerns with respect to anxiety regarding teaching in the classroom during this pandemic. The second communication mentioned above indicates that decisions regarding applicants who cite childcare concerns are to be dealt with at some point down the road.

I am opening the comments here, and intend to leave them open for quite some time. They will be lightly moderated, and anonymous comments (submitted using pseudonyms) will be allowed. The primary reason I am providing this space for comments is to provide a public forum for people who have their requests turned down. If you are commenting for this reason, please indicate what the nature of your request was, and what you were told about why it was turned down. Other comments are also welcome.