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Professors worry about symptomatic students in class, stress importance of masking up

U.Va. is not ruling out targeted prevalence testing and will reevaluate its mask mandate Oct. 1

Professor expresses worry over symptomatic students
Professor expresses worry over symptomatic students

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As coronavirus cases among students climbed in recent weeks to an average of 21 new cases per day, some professors expressed concern that symptomatic students are regularly reporting to class against the wishes of professors and University administrators. Expressing concerns about the Delta variant, educators urge students to continue wearing masks during class to protect themselves, their peers and faculty and staff. 

Outside of class, many students get together in large gatherings, both indoors and outdoors, at events such as football games, meaning they regularly risk catching some sort of sickness. Symptoms linked to COVID-19 such as coughing, sniffing, fatigue and congestion are also common with allergies, colds and the flu.

“I regularly hear students coughing and sniffling under their masks throughout my own classes,” Asst. Sociology professor Dr. Natalie Aviles said. “I remind them that they shouldn’t dismiss anything as allergies, a cold or self-diagnose as not having COVID — only a physician can do this, and they need to get tested, period.”

Symptomatic students

Asst. Sociology Prof. Ian Mullins said in an interview with the Cavalier Daily that he has been struggling with students showing up to his classes sick even after eliminating his classes’ attendance policies and posting lectures online.

“The trouble with U.Va. students to start getting them to show up to class, it's getting them to stay home when they're sick,” Mullins said.

Mullins recently surveyed his students to gauge their concerns about the semester. He noticed they are most apprehensive when they hear coughing or see improper mask usage and are afraid of missing classes with strict attendance policies that hurt their grades.

“You can't blame a student for showing up to class when they think their grade is on the line,” Mullins said. 

Aviles and Mullins said they both hope the University reinstates its prevalence testing policy from last spring, which mandated that students get tested once per week. Mullins also hopes that staff and other University workers could be mandated to test weekly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully vaccinated individuals can still catch and spread the Delta variant, however. 

In an email to the University community Wednesday, Dr. Christopher Holstege, Dr. Mitch Rosner and Dr. Costi Sifri from the School of Medicine explained the University conducted mandatory prevalence testing last year because “everyone was at equal risk of contracting the virus.” At the time, no one had been vaccinated, and mandatory testing allowed the University to track transmission, the medical experts explained. 

Now, however, 97 percent of students and 93 percent of faculty and staff in the academic division are vaccinated, meaning there is a lower risk of serious illness and hospitalization. No students at the University have been hospitalized for COVID-19 or contracted serious COVID-19 infections this year. 

“As a result of the significant shift in risk of serious infection for most members of our community, we have decided to focus our testing resources on the populations where the risk is greatest – unvaccinated people and those who are experiencing symptoms or have been in close contact with an infected person,” the doctors explained. “As always, we are constantly monitoring viral trends and stand ready to change our approach if public health conditions require.” 

Other respiratory illnesses are simultaneously circulating in the University and surrounding community. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus and rhinovirus, the common cold virus, emerged in local elementary schools and daycare centers, as well as strep throat and mononucleosis among University students. As of Sept. 15, there were no cases of influenza in students, faculty or staff. 

One professor anonymously wrote to The Cavalier Daily saying that although they constantly remind students that they should not be coming to class if they are symptomatic, they regularly hear students coughing and sniffling during class. 

“I have had several conversations with other faculty members around Grounds who have already had students test positive after showing up for class,” the professor said. “They have also told me about students telling them they’re experiencing symptoms that should require testing but coming to class regardless.”

University resources

The professor agreed with Aviles and Mullins that the University should reinstate mandatory prevalence testing for all students, adding that administration has so far been “incredibly dismissive of this idea.”

“Right now a lot of professors feel caught between an administration that won’t take our concerns for the community and our young unvaccinated children seriously, and students who have few incentives to test,” the professor said. “We don’t trust our employer or our students to protect us or our families, and it creates an environment of stress and suspicion that is profoundly damaging to pedagogy. The administration has an opportunity to improve these conditions by doing mandatory prevalence testing, but they have instead chosen to be ignorant of the true extent of COVID infections among the vaccinated U.Va. community.”

Mullins is thankful to be teaching in-person classes, but isn’t sure if he feels safe doing so.

“I have an unvaccinated child at home, and I don't think there has been any accommodation of people in my situation, whether it's with an unvaccinated child or spouse or other family member that's immune compromised,” Mullins said. “I think the University just hasn't responded to those questions, or criticisms, they just avoided it.”

Faculty and staff were not required to be vaccinated ahead of the return to in-person learning. Though more than 90 percent are, many professors have children who cannot be vaccinated as the vaccines have not yet been approved for individuals under the age of 12.

Mullins sees the University as cultivating “strategic ignorance” by calling Grounds the safest place to be while not doing the testing to confirm that notion.

“There's this claim that we keep hearing, whether it's through emails or recorded town halls, U.Va. is telling us that Grounds is the safest place we can be, and that's the claim that's used to shift responsibility,” Mullins said. “I don't know how they can have trust in that claim, when they're not doing the type of testing that is necessary to actually measure the rate of infection amongst students.”

The University requires prevalence testing for unvaccinated students, faculty and staff. Testing is also available to fully vaccinated students who are symptomatic or asymptomatic, though some students have reported difficulty accessing it. 

“When you start looking at the Blue Ridge Health District data portal, or even the discrepancy between students and faculty, it's clear that something's not being measured,” Mullins said.

The BRHD reported 71 new cases of COVID-19 for the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County on Friday. In the same day, the University reported 14 new cases and 205 total active cases in the University community.

According to University spokesperson Wes Hester, the University is monitoring breakthrough cases — the term for a case of COVID-19 in a vaccinated individual — and is committed to implementing targeted prevalence testing should new clusters of cases occur.

“Students who are fully vaccinated and who are experiencing symptoms or have been in contact with an infected person should contact Student Health and Wellness for guidance and to schedule a test if necessary,” University spokesperson Brian Coy said.

When prevalence testing was at its peak on Feb. 15, more than 4,200 students were tested daily. This semester, the largest number of students tested in a single day was 589 on Sept 3.

While prevalence testing isn’t mandated for vaccinated students, masks are required for all individuals inside University buildings, regardless of vaccination status. These include University-owned or leased public spaces such as libraries, dining halls, public transportation and stadiums. While the mandate was originally intended to be reevaluated Sept. 6, it has since been extended and will now be reevaluated by Oct. 1. 

Third-year College student Zoe Papandreaou was in favor of the extension of the mask mandate.

“I completely agree with the University’s decision to extend the mask mandate,” Papandreaou said. “I want my professors and my peers to feel safe and protected.”

Enforcing policies

According to the University’s policy directory, violations of masking guidelines can result in a variety of consequences depending on the severity. Minor violations — such as a student forgetting to bring a mask to class — will ideally be addressed by an active bystander who is willing to remind the student of the mask policy and even offer an extra mask if necessary. Most buildings on Grounds also have disposable masks available to students.

The University encourages bystander intervention by faculty and students alike in order to provide for a safe learning environment, according to the policy.

“I consider masking — and following the clear rules of the University — to be among the basic tenets of appropriate behavior for any member of this community,” Media Studies Prof. Siva Vaidhyanathan said.

More serious violations — such as a student repeatedly refusing to abide by the University’s mask mandates and COVID-19 policies — will be routed to the University Judiciary Committee or to the Office of the Dean of Students. ODOS maintains the right to suspend a student from in-person learning and activities if a violation is deemed to be serious and repetitive, allowing students to continue with remote learning or suspending said student from all enrollment. 

Any person can file a complaint to the UJC against a student or student group for violating a policy. Reporting minor and infrequent COVID-19 policy violations is not encouraged, and UJC may decline such cases and instead refer the matter to ODOS to track for repetition. If a violation is significant or repetitive, UJC may accept the case and undergo an investigation or trial.

Last spring, UJC handled 52 total cases, 46 of which related to COVID-19 policies. Out of the 93 total accused students, 80 were accused of violating COVID-19 policy. Charges were also brought against 13 organizations, all of which were accused of COVID-19 policy violations. 

So far, some professors report that while they have had to deal with minor violations of masking guidelines, no students have outright refused to abide by University policy.

“When I held a pre-semester session, one student failed to wear a mask,” Vaidhyanathan said. “I asked him to put one on, he said he did not have one. So I asked him to leave. He did.”

Similarly, Environmental Science Prof. Deborah Lawrence recalls explicitly asking a couple of people in her in-person class to keep their noses covered, and no one refused to do so. 

“I have not faced an outright refusal to wear a mask and I really hope I don’t,” Lawrence said. “If someone in my class refused to wear a mask, I think I would ask them to leave. It doesn’t seem ethical for me to allow one person to put 300 others at risk.” 

Many students at the University are aware of the complications of being diagnosed with the Delta variant. Students who test positive risk placing their friends in quarantine, losing more than a week of social activity and missing critical classes, most of which are offered in-person this semester.

“When you consider what a positive test might take away from them in terms of their social lives — parties, rush week, sports, bars — you can see why [students] might choose not to test even when symptomatic,” Aviles said.

Coy says University faculty have been asked to make accommodations like they would when students have an excused absence — however, there are no guidelines as to what these accommodations must look like.

“Such accommodations will vary from class to class, and may include asking classmates to take notes or, if the classroom technology allows, recording lectures or allowing students to attend the lectures virtually,” Coy said.

When asked if the University approved of student gatherings at bars and restaurants on the Corner, Coy said the University concurs with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Fully vaccinated people can gather together indoors when necessary, but they should wear a mask in public areas as much as possible in order to maximize protection from the Delta variant and avoid spreading it to others,” Coy said. 

Professors, however, remain hopeful University members will continue to uphold and defend the policies that protect the community. 

“I like to think we have a community of care at U.Va.,” Lawrence said. “I would like to be able to ask my students to mask up to protect each other and me.”

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