Faculty express concern about classroom COVID-19 transmission despite UI assurances

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Ryan Ash

A student at the University of Illinois tests during the COVID-19 pandemic last fall. Faculty at the University of Illinois are worried about the Delta variant being carried around campus.

By Willie Cui, Assistant Daytime News Editor

Accounting for “90% or more” of cases in the area, the COVID-19 Delta variant has quickly taken hold in the campus and surrounding communities, according to Dr. Awais Vaid of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department.

With a higher risk of breakthrough infection, the rise of the Delta variant has heightened concern and confusion among faculty over what they should do when a student tests positive for COVID-19 or comes in close contact with someone who has.

“Faculty with small children who cannot be immunized are very worried,” said Dana Rabin, professor in LAS. “There’s a lot of stress right now on this campus.”

Instructors are not informed by the University or CUPHD when a student in one of their classes tests positive for COVID-19 or has been in close contact with an infected person. 

Instead, instructors “would probably find out from a student informing them,” according to Rabin.

“The only way you learn (about it) is if students self-report that they have been in contact with an infected person,” said Ralph Mathisen, a professor in LAS.

More pressing is confusion regarding when instructors should move courses online temporarily due to COVID-19 and whether they have the authority to do so. 

While the University has a process for permanently changing a course’s modality, temporary changes are handled within each individual academic department, though the University “strongly encourages” departments to leave course modalities unchanged.

“Because a student tells them they’ve tested positive, that does not mean this is a call for the instructor to move their class online,” said Andreas Cangellaris, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and University Provost, at a University briefing.

At a meeting of the University Senate Executive Committee meeting on Monday, Cangellaris also noted that the high vaccination rates among students has made contact tracing in classrooms less necessary. 

“When it comes to classrooms, what CUPHD does in collaboration with Student Affairs and the McKinley Health Center infection prevention staff is they figure out the classroom, the roster of the students and they know how many of the students in the classroom are vaccinated,” he said. “That is information that we do not share, obviously. But CUPHD knows and what they have found so far is that contact tracing is rarely needed in the classroom.”

Unlike permanent modality changes, which require approval from the University’s Office for Access and Equity, there is less direction from the University regarding temporary changes in modality, for instance when dealing with potential COVID-19 exposures. 

“We cannot come up with a fixed policy that is against University policy,” Mathisen said. “But I can confirm that some instructors in the History Department who have been informed about positive cases in their classes have chosen to go online, but only for the 10 day quarantine period.”

University officials have reiterated the robustness of the University’s COVID-19 testing program and the high level rates of vaccination among students. 

“When it comes to the student body, 90% of the students are vaccinated,” Cangellaris said at the University Senate Executive Committee meeting. “We are going to be getting individuals who have breakthrough infections. What we know very well is that those who are vaccinated, either they’re asymptomatic or their symptoms are very mild. But in those cases we want them to get tested right away to contain the potential spread.”

Bruce Rosenstock, faculty senator and professor in LAS, submitted a draft resolution regarding the faculty’s concerns to the University Senate Executive Committee for inclusion in the University senate’s Sept. 20 meeting agenda.

“What I am hearing is that this is an immediate concern to a great number of faculty members,” Rosenstock said at the Senate Executive Committee meeting on Monday. “And what they have heard from the SHIELD team, the video that has been put out on this as well as the Massmail that has come out has not directly answered all of their concerns.”

Although they ultimately voted to refer Rosenstock’s resolution to the University Senate Educational Policy Committee rather than include it in the Sept. 20 agenda, the Senate Executive Committee did agree to include a discussion item on the agenda titled “Authority to Decide and/or Change Teaching Modalities During COVID.”

“I think this is a boiling issue right now,” Rosenstock said. “And I don’t think it would serve the interests of our faculty or our administration to postpone this for another month.”

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