On Sept. 23, the University sent out an email to students and staff stating that they would be discontinuing the practice of notifying groups of students if they were in a classroom with an individual who contracted COVID-19. When the University notifies students who are exposed to COVID-19 in a classroom setting, the guidelines UT provides to affected students are almost identical to typical COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Although the new protocol sounds easy to digest, the pandemic has not ended, and Austin remains at Stage 3 of risk-based guidelines. UT must bring back COVID-19 notifications and prioritize student safety above everything else.
As the semester moves along, members of the UT community have seen how administration has responded to the pandemic. Proactive community testing has been an excellent resource that allows asymptomatic students to check if they’re sick, but a large portion of the student body does not get tested routinely. Although asymptomatic testing is an effective resource to keep students updated on their health, there aren’t enough students using it.
Majed Josephi, theater and dance junior, shares his experiences with COVID-19 as a student in his major and his sentiments towards the University’s new policy.
“I really feel for a lot of the people in my major … because a lot of theater majors, and a lot of dance majors have to do physical things in their classes,” Josephi said. “They’re … working with scenery … dancing or acting with their peers. That requires a lot of close contact, which may not always be COVID safe.”
UT fails to acknowledge the close physical proximity that students like Josephi share with others and the ways in which discontinuing COVID-19 notifications trivializes these experiences for students.
“(A professor at UT) was talking about how one of the students in his class tested positive for COVID and he found out, but the rest of his class did not find out. Whenever he did find this out he … had to keep teaching his class in person even though there is a positive COVID test result.” Josephi said.
If both students and faculty are most affected by decisions they are not a part of making, UT needs to make a bigger effort to hear their opinions.
Because of asymptomatic cases, students may not know when they are infecting others. Additionally, Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask and vaccine mandates have not mitigated the effects of COVID-19, and infection rates remain high in Austin.
Dr. Terrance Hines, executive director and chief medical officer for University Health Services, elaborated on the new notification policy and why the University has taken a step in that direction. He has worked with UT since before the beginning of the pandemic and continues to be an advocate for masking and vaccinations.
“One of the limitations of the notification process was because of HIPAA,” Hines said. ”We
could not identify classroom sections, and so individuals were receiving (close contact notifications), but (they didn’t know) if this (was) in (a) class of 10 people or 200 people, and for some folks, it was creating really unnecessary anxiety.”
Hines also explained that the University is concerned that students may develop alarm fatigue, which would cause a desensitization toward COVID-19 notifications that might result in students ignoring these alerts.
Although students might experience stress or anxiety when told they have come in close contact with an infected student, they deserve to know if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. Student health is on the line, and they should be allowed to know if they’ve been exposed to take the right actions at the right time.
Casas is a government junior from Eagle Pass, Texas.