Students question efficacy of University coronavirus policies as classes begin

Contact tracing, in-person classes and COVID-19 testing all create questions among community

Students question efficacy of University coronavirus policies as classes begin
Students flock to the quad in 80 degree weather on April 6.

As students return to in-person classes for the first time in 17 months, the University’s coronavirus response is being put to the test in real-time, leaving some students with concerns about its effectiveness.

Within the first two weeks of classes, questions arose about procedures involving class sizes, contact tracing and COVID-19 testing.

“The first domino to fall”

After just two days of class, two sections of an economics lecture were moved online after meeting in person once. According to the University’s fall plan, classes with 50 or more students were to take place online. Despite this, the class was listed as an in-person class for the students who registered for it. 

Zamaan Qureshi, a sophomore in the School of International Service, is a student in one of these classes that moved online.

Qureshi said that this felt like “the first domino to fall” in regards to the University’s response to COVID-19 this semester. 

Matthew Bennett, the University’s chief communications officer, confirmed in an email to The Eagle that two economics classes had been moved online in accordance with the University’s health and safety measures. Bennett did not specify why the classes had been permitted to be in-person to begin with, despite them being larger than the University’s 50 person threshold.

“The two in-person Economics classes that had grown beyond the 50 student threshold were moved online in accordance with our health and safety measures, and we are currently working to create smaller, in-person discussion sections that are accessible to all the students in the class,” Bennett wrote. 

Qureshi said that was notified of the change in course modality the night before the class was supposed to meet. 

“I personally hadn’t received any information that there was any kind of development regarding COVID, within our class or the University more broadly,” Qureshi said. “The policy change confused me in that regard and that the communication was relatively limited on short notice and quite a drastic change for an educational experience for a class.”

Still, Qureshi said that he felt safe being in the class in person, despite its large size. 

“I personally feel that there’s a general response from American University students that we take this virus seriously, and we take the policies at the school seriously and we want to protect the health of our community, be that AU, and the Washington, D.C. area,” he said. 

Bennett said that the University is working to create smaller, in-person discussion sections available to all students in the class, but that the main lectures will continue to be online. 

Qureshi said that the University’s communication this semester has so far been very mixed. 

“If the thought process all along was that this kind of size class was going to be virtual, why tell students at the beginning of the semester, and offer this class as an in-person class?” Qureshi said. “Quite frankly, it’s misleading.” 

Case notification procedures 

As of Sept. 7, the University has sent proximity notifications to 28 classes based on 17 positive cases, according to Bennett. 

Bennett said that once a student tests positive for the coronavirus, all members of the class are notified.

“All members of the class are notified as an extra layer of risk mitigation and out of an abundance of caution,” Bennett said. “This testing can help identify and isolate any potential further cases.”

Victoria Opperman, a junior in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication, received one of those emails after a student in her Chemistry of Cooking lecture class tested positive. The class has 48 seats in it and meets twice a week in person. Opperman received an email from the University’s COVID-19 notification system on Sept. 7 after a student in her class that met on Sept. 2 tested positive. The email said that she was “not a close contact” and encouraged her to take part in voluntary COVID-19 testing.

The email she received said that she was still expected to continue attending her campus activities, including attending class. 

“In retrospect, it also did feel a little bit weird to be going around in daily life after getting that email,” she said. 

Opperman said she wishes that the University had been clearer from the beginning of the semester for what the COVID-19 policies and procedures are.

“It does feel a little bit weird that we didn’t get an initial email kind of being like ‘hey here’s what these emails mean, here’s what professors are allowed to do with masking. Here's what we suggest that you do in terms of seating in a lecture hall that's bigger,’” she said. 

Students petition for mandatory COVID-19 testing 

A group of Resident Assistants and Desk Receptionists across several residence halls started a petition to implement mandatory COVID-19 testing for all students, regardless of vaccination status. The petition is addressed to Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw, Housing and Residence Life Director Lisa Freeman and Director of COVID-19 Student Support Services Paul Calhoun. The petition is asking that this testing occur on a biweekly basis at minimum. 

The petition is also asking the University to publish information regarding outbreaks and infection rates in residence halls. The University has since launched a COVID-19 dashboard, though the data does not break down cases by on-campus residency and off-campus residency like it did in previous semesters. 

“Residents and their residential staff have the right to know about the threat of COVID-19 that lurks in their home. Simply having the present mask mandate in place is not enough as full enforcement is impossible,” the petition reads. 

RAs and desk receptionists, who are employed by the Office of Housing and Residence Life, are responsible for enforcing the University’s mask mandate, being HRL’s “frontline enforcers” for COVID-19 policies in the residence halls. 

“My first night on duty, I walked into a room and there were over 20 [students]; it was standing room only in a person's dorm, no masks. And in some ways, it feels like COVID is like flying out the window at times,” said Josh Hall, an RA in Centennial Hall who helped to start the petition. 

Hall said that he chooses to get tested weekly, and encourages his residents to get tested as well. Because testing is not mandatory, he said that some of the issues he has had to deal with among his residents have stemmed from differing views on COVID-19 precautions amongst roommates. 

“The worst part was not knowing how much COVID was in the dorms, because you’d only hear about the cases that you’ve heard while you were on duty, or from your individual floor through the grapevine,” Hall said. “But there’s kind of that dark figure lingering there. And [the dashboard] helps partially with it, but it still exists because they’re not testing everyone within there.”

Aw said in an email to The Eagle that the University is applying a “comprehensive approach” to its health and safety measures. 

“To mandate testing for students living on campus presume that those students are at greater risk of infection than others and the science and data is not here to back that up. We have found based on past covid testing prior to the vaccination that off-campus students were at higher levels of infection,” Aw said. “We must understand the importance of a layered approach to health and safety and the fact is that at the university we mandated vaccinations, we have a mask mandate, we test based on risks, and we conduct robust contact tracing.”

Hall said that he hopes the University listens to the RAs, especially as they are putting their lives on the line for their jobs. 

“It’s not a fault-proof system. And [the University] said they would keep it that way until they had reason to do otherwise,” Hall said. “And my question is, why keep that fault line there? Why wait for something bad to happen, when we have the tools to prevent it?” 

nheller@theeagleonline.com 

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