Eva Sileo, a senior at the University of Iowa, was surprised to learn that her school would not be testing students as they returned to campus at the start of the semester.
“I think it is profoundly irresponsible” Sileo told CNN. “It scares me a lot that they’ve brought 30,000 people back to campus from all over the world and they really have no concept of what level of exposure they were putting into this community from the get-go.”
Since the university started tracking cases on August 18, 1,395 students and 19 employees have tested positive for Covid-19, including 253 new student cases on September 2. The university has made clear on its Covid-19 dashboard that its tally only includes self-reported cases.
“Our numbers are clearly terrifying,” associate professor Naomi Greyser told CNN. “They’re really scary and my students are scared.”
In a statement to CNN, university spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said, “Iowa City and Johnson County, like other college communities across the nation, experienced a growth in COVID-19 cases due to the increased student population. While we are disappointed, campus leadership was prepared for this possibility and is monitoring the metrics established to determine if the university needs to change course.”
Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague told CNN on Wednesday that “we have a 30% positivity rate just within the 24-hour period.”
Even before students arrived, the university defended its decision to not test students at the start of the semester.
“One-time testing only provides data for a specific point in time and can miss cases in the early stages of infection, giving students a false sense of security,” the school said in an August 3 news release. “One-time testing requires significant resources, including trained staff to conduct the tests, personal protective equipment, and physical space for conducting testing safely and ensuring privacy.”
Beck said the school’s decision on testing is supported by CDC guidelines for higher education institutions released June 30.
Those guidelines say “entry testing” at colleges and universities hasn’t been systematically studied and it’s unknown if it provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected with implementation of social distancing, face masks, and other safety measures.
“Therefore, CDC does not recommend entry testing of all returning students, faculty, and staff,” the CDC said.
However, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease has said he thinks colleges should test incoming students.
Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that testing everyone at the start of the semester is part of what makes for a successful reopening.
Associate professor Jennifer Buckley disagrees with the school policy on testing. She isn’t teaching this semester but attended planning meetings with the university president and the dean of public health because she’s a member of the Faculty Council and the English Executive Committee.
“Given the rising case numbers many of us are just so deeply distressed by the flawed planning, and the implementation of a Covid response plan that doesn’t really take into account the chance that students would come to campus infected by the virus,” Buckley said. “We knew that probability was 100%.”
PPE kits issued to students
Instead of testing students when they arrived on campus, the university provided every student with a protective equipment kit. The kit contained two reusable cloth face coverings, two disposable masks, one face shield and one small bottle of hand sanitizer.
According to its website, the university only recommends testing for students with symptoms or a known exposure. Sileo says the university must first approve the request to get a test through a telemedicine visit.
“I know numerous people who have gone through this process and the one thing I’ve heard from all of them is that getting approved requires multiple phone calls and a lot of waiting on hold and re-explaining,” Sileo told CNN.
Beck said that once a student has spoken with a heath care professional, if they are symptomatic or considered a close contact, they receive a testing appointment with University of Iowa Healthcare.
Students who test positive are supposed to log onto the school’s online reporting tool and self-isolate for 10 days. The Johnson County Public Health Department is in charge of contact tracing.
The university tells students on the school website, “If you have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past three months, do not get tested again.”
Students, staff stage ‘sickout’
On Wednesday, more than 900 students, faculty and staff staged a “sickout” to protest the fact that the university is still holding in-person classes for courses with fewer than 50 students, protest organizers said.
“We’ve all been watching what’s been happening at U Iowa all summer and we’ve all pretty much spent the summer urging the administration not to reopen for in-person classes,” explained one organizer of the protest, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
“None of us felt like it was safe. And many of us sent emails, made phone calls, attended protests. … After the first week of classes, my co-organizers and I had had enough,” the organizer said.
Another student participating in the sickout, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “I am participating because I just feel that it’s completely unreasonable to ask your lowest paid, and most vulnerable employees to come back and teach or work on campus right now when our administration is all online.”
In response to this claim, Beck told CNN, “Our senior leaders are frequently working on campus – however most of campus has been asked to continue working remotely to keep the density on campus low for those who must perform their duties on campus.”
She added, “Both our office of the president and the office of the provost are open.”
Some students want the campus open
Not all students supported the sickout.
In an email to University President Bruce Harreld, student Jacob Siefke expressed his frustrations.
“I ask that you keep campus open,” Siefke wrote Thursday in an email he shared with CNN. “During yesterday’s UIowa ‘sickday,’ less than 1,000 people participated out of 30,000 students. I believe the sentiment by the majority of the student body is to keep campus open and keep classes in person when possible.
“Many students, including myself, do not want to return home as they do not feel safe at home for reasons such as parents not taking COVID-19 seriously or parents not caring about their children’s well-being. With the appropriate measures the amount of cases of COVID-19 can be mitigated on campus, and that includes disciplining students behaving irresponsibly,” he added.
Fauci recently told CNN it was important that schools designate quarantine spaces for students who contract the virus.
“The whole thing could fall apart if you don’t handle that well,” Fauci said Thursday. “You don’t want to send them home. Because if you send them home, they’re only going to re-enter the community from which they came, and then they’ll wind up spreading infection outside of the confines of the college.”
Before the sickout, Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel sent a letter to faculty.
“The absence of faculty compromises our students’ ability to maintain the educational progress critical to their future success,” he wrote in a letter obtained by CNN. “Accordingly, while the university acknowledges individuals’ concerns about in-person instruction, I strongly disagree with the planned manner of expressing those concerns.
“I respectfully remind you that as role models, you have an obligation to deliver instruction as assigned, and to provide appropriate notice of absences due to illness. We also would expect appropriate documentation of sick leave usage.”
Residence advisers complain
Organizers of the sickout said that as a result of rising cases, residence advisers (RAs) across campus quit in large numbers.
They said one dorm, which has over 300 residents, only has three remaining RAs. Beck said that allegation is not accurate.
However, she said there was turnover at Daum Residence Hall, which now has four RAs. It normally has seven RAs, as well as a graduate hall director, someone at the front desk and an office administrator. Additional student security works during the overnight hours to monitor the exterior entrances to the building.
In a statement given to CNN, the leaders of the protest said that “despite being promised they’d never have to interact with COVID-19 positive students, RAs have been asked to care for them, including helping them move into quarantine dorms, serving them meals, escorting them places and sharing elevators with them, and supervising them to make sure they don’t break quarantine.”
One student, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity, said he quit his job as an RA.
“What I gathered from my experience is there was not an actual plan,” the former RA told CNN. “I had to consistently interact with people with COVID cases.”
An RA, also speaking on anonymity, described what it’s like to still be on the job.
“I have six residents already in isolation and a bunch more have been getting tested so we’ll see when their results get back. I am too physically afraid to leave my room because I do not want to potentially encounter these residents. I almost ran into one of the people that were positive in the hallway when going to the bathroom,” the RA said in a statement provided to CNN.
According to the organizers of the sickout, RAs were not provided additional PPEs aside from the protective equipment kits given to students upon arrival.
Beck said RAs were recently provided a second PPE kit. She said RAs also have access to gloves and to the disposable mask dispensers that are in every building.
Beck said RAs really shouldn’t be interacting with infected students.
“The role of an RA related to COVID-19 is to advise students on our policy, direct students moving into isolation, and assist with prepping a room for contactless check-in and contactless meal delivery,” she said.
“There should be no contact between the RA and COVID-19 positive student,” Beck said.
Student government opposed in-person classes
University of Iowa student government, which comprises both undergraduate and graduate students, sent a letter on August 4 to Harreld, the school president, and Kregel explaining why they believed the university should not go forward with in-person instruction.
“While we deeply miss our traditional learning environments and collegiate social experiences, the rising cases and risks associated with COVID-19 make returning to campus an alarming prospect,” the students wrote in the letter obtained by CNN. “We cannot, in good conscience, support in-person classroom learning and full opening of residence halls in the Fall 2020 semester amid our current environment.”
Buckley, the associate professor, said that the faculty worked to create courses that could be delivered online.
“We worked as a faculty and staff community, all the way through the summer, trusting that central admin would listen, and would put into effect the recommendations,” she said. “We have world class epidemiologists and public health experts on our own campus. We were trusting that central administration will listen to them, as well as the national and international health organization.”
Beck, the school spokeswoman, said the university did extensive planning ahead of the start of the fall semester.
“Campus leaders spent many months planning and adopting processes and procedures to reduce minimize the spread of COVID-19, including moving large classes online, requiring and providing face coverings (masks or face shields), limiting guests and dining options in the residence halls, and reconfiguring classrooms to promote social distance,” Beck told CNN.
Attempting to curtail teaching in-person from the start, many students and teachers requested special learning and work arrangements.
Based on university correspondence sent August 19, before classes started, 72% of courses were going to be delivered online, 16% were meant to be face-to-face and 12% were to be a blended model.
At that time, 450 faculty, staff, graduate assistants, fellows and student employees had been approved for temporary alternative work arrangements. At least 240 students had been granted temporary alternative learning arrangement requests.
Iowa is a Covid-19 trouble spot
The school is located in a state with a rising number of coronavirus cases.
Earlier this week, a White House coronavirus task force report warned that Iowa has the highest rate of cases in the US, increasing 77.4% from the previous week. As of Friday, Johns Hopkins University says Iowa has reported 68,203 cases and 1,153 deaths.
The task force said that universities have been a major reason why virus rates have increased exponentially.
“University towns need a comprehensive plan that scales immediately for testing all returning students with routine surveillance testing to immediately identify new cases and outbreaks and isolate and quarantine,” the report said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds echoed this sentiment during a Wednesday press conference, pointing to “social activity among young adults” as the reason why the community spread had gotten so high.
Buckley said students should not be blamed for the significant rise in cases.
“I want to push back against the narrative that students are deliberately, egregiously flouting medical advice, and are partying their way into a Covid spike,” she said. “So many of our students share our concerns. Many are stringently observing Covid mitigation guidelines.”
Buckley said remote learning worked for the students during the spring semester and it would work just as well for them in the fall.
Other schools had large number of Covid-19 cases
The University of Iowa certainly is not the only large university to not test its students upon arrival or have its case load get out of control.
The University of Notre Dame, in partnership with LabCorp, conducted 12,000 pre-matriculation Covid-19 tests of students but still had to switch temporarily to remote learning because of a mounting number of Covid-19 cases.
The University of Georgia attempted to get ahead of a spike in cases by enacting voluntary surveillance testing to identify students who could be asymptomatic. The school has reported over 1,000 positive cases.
But other schools of comparable size did take on the task of pre-arrival testing.
Purdue, a school with 221 cumulative positive cases, made getting a Covid-19 test a requirement for living or attending class on campus.
Florida State University required all students living on campus to participate in testing as part of the school’s housing contract. FSU has had a total of 129 Covid-19 cases.
And Texas Tech University created a drive-thru site for students to get tested free of charge before the start of the semester. The university has had 194 cases.