UT professors continue to enforce seating charts despite COVID-19 exposure notification changes

Kevin Vu

Professors say they will continue to enforce seating charts as part of contact tracing efforts even though the University is scaling back exposure notifications.

University Health Services announced Thursday they will no longer send possible COVID-19 exposure notifications to classes, University Housing or student organizations. The University will continue to notify students who come into close contact for more than 15 minutes with individuals who test positive for COVID-19, according to the email.

Darlene Bhavnani, chief epidemiologist for COVID-19 contact tracing at the University, said in an email that seating charts allow contact tracers to identify people seated near the person who tested positive during their infectious period.

“Without seating charts, contact tracers would have no way of knowing who remained within 6 feet of an infectious case for 15 minutes or more, unless the case was able to name their close contact,” said Bhavnani, an assistant professor of population health. “Close contacts may not know of the exposure, when to test, and may inadvertently spread the virus to someone else if infected themselves.”

Hina Azam, an associate Islamic Studies professor, said she keeps a seating chart for a course she teaches with 100 students. Azam said seating charts allowed her to learn the names of all her students.

“The day after I … took time in class to go through every single person and make sure they were all sitting in the right (spot), from that point onward, the number of students who speak in class has doubled,” Azam said.

Pat Wong, an associate public affairs professor, said he does not enforce seating charts in two of the three classes he teaches, but keeps one for his larger class that does not allow for social distancing. 

“My sense is that if anyone comes down with COVID-19, everyone has to go into isolation anyway,” Wong said in an email.

Wong said before the semester began, he asked his students how comfortable they were with in-person classes. He said most students in smaller classrooms expressed feeling sufficiently comfortable, but 15% of students in the larger class preferred Zoom.

Azam said she was shocked when she found out some classes do not keep seating charts.

“My understanding is that we were supposed to do it, I didn’t know it was an optional thing,” Azam said.

Azam said she is frustrated that seating charts are not a requirement given how beneficial they can be for contact tracing.

“Contact tracing cannot work if not all the parts are together,” Azam said. “You have to really be able to understand the full picture in order … for contact tracing to work. You can’t have a bowl with holes in it, then it’s not a bowl, then it’s a sieve. We’re not collecting the necessary information, so what’s the point of me doing it?”