Tue. Sep 22nd, 2020

The University’s Lack of Transparency Could Send Us Home

Although student action is key to campus staying open, Wake Forest’s withholding of information should not be overlooked

Hours before UNC Chapel Hill announced they were ending in person instruction and asking students residing on campus to return home, the Daily Tar Heel tweeted that UNC’s coronavirus dashboard showed 135 new cases within one week and only four quarantine dorm rooms left. 

The dashboard, which is updated weekly, provides detailed information about positivity rates, the number of positive cases among students and employees, testing rates, dorm occupancy and more. With less than a week until undergraduate classes start, with graduate programs already in full swing and with many students already moved-in, where is Wake Forest’s COVID-19 dashboard? 

According to an Aug. 21 email from President Nathan Hatch, “the university learned of several new confirmed COVID-19 cases among Wake Forest students related to small off-campus social gatherings.” 

In response to this email, the Old Gold & Black urges Hatch and the university to directly disclose the number of students who are currently COVID-19 positive. Simply describing that there are several students who tested positive is not an accurate enough description — especially given that this information was disclosed in an email with the subject line “The Stakes are High” rather than, for instance, “Public Health Announcement: Several Students Test Positive for a Viral Disease.”

Hatch also noted in the attached video that the possibility of switching to remote learning relies on whether or not cases increase. 

“Should the situation change and an increase of cases occur on campus, we will need to reevaluate our ability to maintain a healthy community. If we can’t, we will have to move to a remote experience,” he said.

The Wake Forest community should be privy to the information being used to make this decision: What is the threshold positivity rate for closing campus? How many active cases are there? How many total cases have there been? How many rooms are available for quarantine? What is the positivity rate in Forsyth County? The university has not yet responded to the Old Gold & Black’s request for information surrounding a public dashboard.

Currently, the only information available to the community about COVID-19 data on campus is through the Forsyth County Department of Health. As of their most recent release on Aug. 15 (before students began moving on to campus), there have been 27 individuals tested and four reported positive cases in the 27109 zip code — which is exclusively the Wake Forest campus. 

When Wake Forest shared that three individuals had tested positive on campus in July, they stated that they would not release information on who they were — including whether or not they were students — “in keeping with [their] long-held privacy practices.” Despite this, the Old Gold & Black inquired about whether or not the individuals were students and how many others were in isolation due to exposure. In response, we were forwarded the initial email and not given any further information.

A once-in-a-century global pandemic is the time to rethink long-held practices, and recognize that divulging more details would be useful for all parties involved. Wake Forest should have told us whether or not they were students, how many individuals were in isolation, how they were conducting the quarantine and isolation process, what they learned and how that incident prepared them for the Fall semester. This would not only have created some peace of mind among families, but it would have been a sign that Wake Forest is ready to take on the inevitable campus outbreak.  

To be clear, the university is legally bound to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) when disclosing information surrounding private health information. However, FERPA does not constrict the university from releasing information on whether or not the individual is a student or employee. Specifically, according to the Student Private Policy Office, the university may release to the school community that a student is COVID-19 positive “if that information is in a non-personally identifiable form.” Given that Wake Forest is a college, disclosing whether or not an individual falls within the two general categories of student or employee would in no way allow for identification of that person. NC State went as far as locating clusters within different Greek organization houses, as a result of off campus partying. 

Further, although the university had not released any information concerning off-campus cases until yesterday, the Old Gold & Black has confirmed that at least two students residing in private Winston-Salem residences have tested positive in the past three weeks. While we cannot say for certain that there are more cases beyond the “several” described by President Hatch and those we were able to confirm, any Wake Forest student can attest to the gossip surrounding alleged clusters of positive cases among off campus students. 

Why did Wake Forest just begin confirming these cases today? Will they continue to do so? Even though these students are not residing in dorms, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have access to campus and aren’t taking courses in person starting next week. If these students are bound to the same conduct expectations and are tracking their health via the SneezSafe website, they should be included in the case count. 

If Wake Forest wants this social experiment to succeed, they need to promise us as much as we are promising them. The university needs to fully disclose all detailed information as allowed under FERPA. Without doing so, students will continue to flout the rules while operating under a false sense of security. Providing the university community with a robust and daily-updated data dashboard, with all the elements the university is tracking, is going to be the defining action that will allow us to stay on campus. 

Ultimately, Pro Humanitiate can only do so much for us, and only so much blame can be placed on first year students who just want to find a friend. To have not seen freshman gatherings coming is an absolute oversight from the university. It is not surprising that hundreds of 18 year olds who have been cooped up at home for six months want to start the college experience. 

That said, the Old Gold & Black does not consider students innocent in this situation, and believes that all of us need to be resolute in following social distancing guidelines — especially those who are contemplating social gatherings off campus. We agree with Hatch’s recent statement: it won’t be classroom gatherings and residence halls that force campus to close, it will be parties.

However, the lack of transparency from our university is the most damning action of the past two months. We don’t need to be UNC, NC State or Notre Dame. The only way we can escape that reality is for all parties involved to be honest. If Wake Forest is asking us to follow the social distancing rules and report others for not doing so, then we must ask Wake Forest for the rapid release of all relevant COVID-19 data.