UI Senate rejects proposal to examine ‘in-house’ contact tracing for classrooms

Student+Ryan+Reeder+checks+to+see+how+much+saliva+he+has+in+his+COVID-19+test+sample.+Illinois+faculty+have+recently+expressed+concern+over+perceived+relaxed+COVID-19+contact+tracing+protocols+this+year.

Cameron Krasucki

Student Ryan Reeder checks to see how much saliva he has in his COVID-19 test sample. Illinois faculty have recently expressed concern over perceived relaxed COVID-19 contact tracing protocols this year.

By Willie Cui, Assistant Daytime Editor

On Monday, the University Senate voted to reject a resolution that called for the creation of a committee to evaluate various practices and policies on managing COVID-19 in classrooms.

“I believe that (the resolution) now represents the very best possible compromise for our campus to go forward and to find an agreement about the worries that a lot of us feel … about how safe our classrooms are,” said Bruce Rosenstock, professor in LAS and faculty senator who sponsored the resolution.

Throughout this semester, members of the University faculty and graduate employees have expressed concern over the University’s handling of COVID-19 with respect to in-person classes.

One of these concerns centers around contact tracing and exposure notification in classroom settings, which is handled solely by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

Rosenstock’s resolution calls for the University to form a committee “comprising relevant stakeholders from across the campus to examine current practices and protocols related to data collection and dissemination in regard to contact tracing in the classroom and related educational settings.”

The resolution also called for the committee to consider the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on “policies and procedures to support expedited determination of exposure risk and close contacts” for institutions of higher education. 

This has led some to believe that the University should form its own “in-house” contact tracing team as is the case with the University of Illinois at Chicago

Rosenstock’s resolution noted that UIC’s “indigenous” contact tracing team, organized under its School of Public Health, “does all contact tracing for students, staff and faculty, except for the UIC hospital system which does its own contact tracing.”

The resolution noted that UIC recommends for its instructors to keep records of class seating information to aid in contact tracing, referencing an Aug. 27 announcement by UIC Provost Javier Reyes to UIC instructors.

Additionally, Rosenstock noted that since instructors are not informed when a student in their class tests positive for COVID-19 under current University policies, instructors may be oblivious to potential classroom exposure.

“I think it’s damaging to our instructors’ sense of their own wellbeing and those of their students to have it from rumor that a student has tested positive in their classroom and not be aware at all of what possible follow-ups there may have been from CUPHD,” Rosenstock said at a Senate Executive Committee meeting last week. 

Helga Varden, professor in LAS and Senate Executive Committee member, believes that a split is developing among instructors over “whether or not they feel they have the knowledge they should” about COVID-19 in their classes.

“I think that before the next semester it would be great if we have a committee with some role that would be productive … that could take hold of this possible source of conflict at the moment and solve it by bringing together voices and making faculty feel they can be involved,” Varden said at the SEC meeting last week. “There are complaints at the moment and there is a bit of a split growing and we would like to get rid of it.”

In response to the calls to form its own contact tracing team, the University has maintained that CUPHD is legally mandated to lead contact tracing efforts in the Champaign area and that the University doesn’t have the authority to conduct contact tracing on its own.

“We are structured differently and operationally from UIC as it relates to this issue. We don’t have the authority to do what’s being recommended,” said Chancellor Robert Jones at the SEC meeting. “It is clearly in the hands of CUPHD.”

Jones noted that the make-up and mobility of UIC students are different from the University’s students.

“Those folks (at UIC) are for the most part going back and forth into communities each and every day. They come into the campus, they leave, and for the most part go back to their communities,” Jones said. 

According to Dr. Awais Vaid, Deputy Administrator and Epidemiologist at CUPHD, the reason UIC is able to legally do contact tracing is because they have an agreement with the local health authorities that allow them to do so.

“The example of UIC doing contact tracing is because they have an agreement with the City of Chicago and the Illinois Department of Public Health to serve as their agent to do contact tracing,” Vaid said at the Senate meeting. “Contact tracing does not start and end in a classroom setting.”

Vaid also said that “95% of close contacts are already vaccinated, so they are not considered close contacts.”

“If you are fully vaccinated, you are not considered a close contact — you don’t have to quarantine. If you were positive in the past 90 days, you don’t have to isolate or quarantine and you’re not considered a close contact,” Vaid said. “Those are the things that are important.”

Rosenstock claims that this is inaccurate, stating that the CDC’s definition of a close contact includes fully vaccinated individuals and that the CDC recommends vaccinated individuals “get tested 3-5 days after coming into close contact with someone with COVID-19.”

“Every vaccinated student who is a close contact should test in 3-5 days after the contact,” Rosenstock said in an email. “They are not being given the proper warning.”

Additionally, at last week’s SEC meeting Rosenstock stated that if University records are needed for contact tracing, CUPHD would need to rely on the McKinley Health Center’s infection prevention team due to FERPA restrictions.

When doing contact tracing, Vaid said that CUPHD asks students for information about their classes, noting that most students are adults and “have the information about their own health, and who they meet with and who they socialize with.”

Vaid said that if CUPHD needs additional assistance when conducting contact tracing, they’ll reach out to the University and have already done so on four occasions.

“Based on the response that we get (from the individual who tested positive), additional questions may be requested; additional assistance may be requested through McKinley,” Vaid said at the Senate meeting. “But if we don’t feel the need to include McKinley, we will not include them.”

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