Wichita State has prohibited professors from notifying their students if a classmate has tested positive for COVID-19 and may have unwittingly exposed fellow students.
The university is currently not informing instructors if one of their students tests positive, and according to an email sent to faculty on Aug. 19, even if a student tells their instructor that they have tested positive, the instructor is not allowed to alert the class.
“Faculty and staff should not: (1) ask the student any questions about where the student has been or who the student has been around, or (2) report the positive case to the class members,” states the email, which was obtained by The Sunflower.
University officials have said the decision not to inform students is in response to Kansas House Bill 2016, which states only local health officials can authorize and conduct contact tracing.
“The public health laws that are in place don’t allow us to follow up on that. The Health Department does that, so that’s why that decision was made,” University Provost Rick Muma said. “It wasn’t something we decided on. We were just following the laws and regulations regarding communicable diseases.”
Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said the ban on individuals contact tracing is not a valid excuse to prevent instructors from notifying students of possible exposure.
“Contact tracing has a very specific meaning. It means doing the detective work and tracking down and notifying the people in the patient’s network,” LoMonte said. “Notifying people that they may have been exposed does not meet the definition of contact tracing.”
When asked if instructors are allowed to request that students who have tested positive for COVID not attend class, director of Student Health Services Camille Childers didn’t respond directly. She said the university is providing “leniency” for students who are ill.
“Instructors have been asked to provide leniency for students who report that they have COVID or they have been exposed to COVID, because of no fault of their own, they have to miss in-person classes,” Childers said.
She said one reason classes were set up using a hybrid model was so that instructors could provide flexibility for students.
“That model may not fit all academic environments and that’s where the program and the instructor need to be creative to make sure students are not falling behind in their academic requirements,” she said.
Muma said that even if a student tests positive, as long as everyone is following social distancing and face covering guidelines, they likely haven’t come “in contact” with classmates.
“You’re not considered a true contact unless you’re around someone without face coverings on for more than ten minutes and less than six feet,” Muma said.
While that is the current definition of a close contact, health experts are constantly reevaluating safety measures, taking into consideration other factors such as ventilation and exposure time.
When it comes to informing students of possible COVID exposure in the classroom, Childers said privacy is another main concern.
“That falls under privacy more than anything,” she said. “We do the same with any other disease. If one of your classmates has measles, or lumps, or chickenpox, we don’t make a class announcement about that.”
But freedom of information expert Frank LoMonte said he doesn’t believe privacy is a valid argument in this case.
“The department of education has specifically said that if you think it’s necessary to protect public health and safety, you absolutely have to notify, so there’s no privacy law against [it],” LoMonte said. “In fact, the department has even said you can give out the names if you think it’s necessary.”
This is not the first time the university has cited privacy in their COVID response.
WSU was late to reveal COVID-19 case numbers on campus. The university began releasing case numbers Sept. 2, more than two weeks after the start of the fall semester and well after other state universities had begun releasing case numbers.
A university release stated that WSU is releasing numbers because it understands the “critical nature of sharing data,” after weeks of it insisting that sharing any case information was a breach of privacy.
That privacy, others say, puts a wider population of students and faculty at risk.
“Your privacy right ends at the point where other people’s health and safety are at risk,” LoMonte said.
What student leaders are saying
Political science junior Zachary James, who currently serves as the Student Government Association’s treasurer, said that while he believes the university should protect the identity of individual students, not informing possible contacts could lead to more serious dangers.
“I understand protecting the student who tested positive — protecting their identity and their safety,” James said. “But I think it’s putting others in danger because there are people who are also in the classroom that could live off campus, and there are people who go to work.
“That leads to more problems.”
Jordy Mosqueda, a freshman general business major who is serving as an at-large senator in SGA, said that while there are pros and cons to WSU’s policy of secrecy, he believes that the cons outweigh the pros.
“In my opinion, it’s a good policy, but at the same time, it’s not,” Mosqueda said. “I see why they would want the privacy side of it, but at the same time . . . I think that’s just a risk you shouldn’t be taking because we don’t know if there are students actually on campus or off campus, [or if] they have vulnerable family members or people around them that are at high risk.”
John Kirk, SGA fine arts senator, said that as someone who is at a high risk of contracting COVID, the policy puts him in danger.
“For me specifically, I have diabetes and cancer,” Kirk said. “My doctor has said that I can go to class as long as I have a mask on and I am comfortable with it . . . However, still, my immune system is lower than your average college student. If someone in my class tested positive, I need to freaking know about it, and I know I’m not the only person who feels that way.
“I think it’s unacceptable and just wrong.”
This story was originally published by The Sunflower and is published here as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies, including KMUW.