Ahead of campus forums meant to discuss Western Kentucky University’s reopening Aug. 24, faculty at the university contend key questions about testing, contact tracing and quarantine procedures remain unanswered.
“The current plan leaves WKU students, staff and faculty, along with the broader community, at unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19,” WKU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors said in a statement sent to campus leadership Thursday.
The group raised questions about whether WKU has fully considered its plans for testing, contact tracing and quarantines for students who live on campus.
“WKU must strengthen its testing, tracing and quarantine procedures to reduce this risk. The decision to hold face-to-face classes and open up campus during a pandemic brings with it the responsibility to safeguard the health of all members of the university community,” the letter said.
WKU spokesman Bob Skipper declined to respond to the group’s statement.
The scrutiny comes as WKU prepares to host several forums for faculty, staff, students and their parents.
The university will host an open forum via teleconference technology for faculty and staff at 1:30 p.m. Monday.
Two other forums for students and their families will be broadcast on WKU’s Facebook page, with the first taking place at 4 p.m. Monday. The university is asking participants to submit their questions in advance online.
“The panel on Aug. 3 will include representatives from Graves Gilbert Clinic at WKU, emergency management, housing, dining, academics, advising and student life,” the university said on its Facebook page.
At 4 p.m. Wednesday, WKU will host a forum featuring representatives from its student activities, Preston Health and Activities Center, operations, parking and transportation and WKU athletics divisions.
On July 23, WKU released additional details about its plan for testing, contact tracing and quarantine. A major element of its plan includes a partnership with Graves Gilbert Clinic to offer PCR (live virus) and antibody tests on campus starting Monday.
Incoming students won’t be required to get tested for COVID-19 before in-person classes start Aug. 24.
“Some universities have elected to require PCR testing of all incoming students,” WKU Emergency Manager David Oliver wrote in a campus memo at the time explaining the plan. “WKU has not chosen this approach based on consultation with our partner physicians and the most recent guidance from the” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Under WKU’s testing plan, tests will be available if someone meets one of several criteria laid out by the CDC or the state’s Department for Public Healthy or as ordered by a physician.
Those factors include if the person in question is showing COVID-19 symptoms, if they’ve been in close contact with an infected person, if they’ve been identified by a contact tracer as likely exposed or if they’re under a doctor’s orders to get tested for COVID-19.
In its statement, WKU’s AAUP chapter urged the university to go further, contending that it’s not enough to stop at testing students who show symptoms of COVID-19.
“While the CDC may not recommend testing all students, staff and faculty on arrival to campus, systematic, periodic testing of asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic) individuals is what prevents transmission … (the) testing of symptomatic students alone is not enough to contain outbreaks,” the group said.
Additionally, faculty are urging the university to make testing financially accessible for students.
“WKU must also identify a procedure for defraying the cost of COVID-19 testing for students. While staff and faculty may have fees for testing and treatment waived due to employee insurance, this is not true for students. The cost of testing can vary considerably based on individual insurance plans, and the University should not assume students are able to afford the test,” the AAUP chapter said.
Faculty are also pushing WKU to clarify its procedures for contact tracing in the event of an outbreak – including publicly reporting its COVID-19 case totals.
“WKU must also make public the number of cases of COVID-19 diagnosed at the university for students, staff and faculty. The University of Washington is a model of transparency, publishing their confirmed and presumed positive cases online. WKU can and should keep the identity of affected students anonymized in these releases in order to comply with HIPAA guidelines,” the chapter said.
Under WKU’s plan for quarantines, students will be given the option to return home or, if they live on campus, reside in a designated space on campus.
Students will be supported by a designated WKU Housing and Residence Life coordinator specifically tasked with assisting quarantined students. Medical care will be provided by Graves Gilbert Clinic at its on-campus location or through telemedicine sessions with an on-call provider, Oliver wrote in his memo to campus.
Aramark, the university’s dining services vendor, has developed an online system for on-campus, quarantined students to order meals delivered to their rooms by a staff member, Oliver wrote. Other essentials, including toiletries, that are found in on-campus stores will be available for delivery as well.
If students live in on-campus housing and are directed to quarantine – but are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 – they will initially remain in their assigned room, Oliver wrote.
Oliver also said required absences from class during the pandemic will not count against students: “Absences of students forced to miss class for health reasons may not negatively impact the students’ progress/grade in courses.”
WKU faculty are pressing for more details about how student and staff needs will be considered during quarantine periods.
“What protocols are being developed by the University to help students keep up with classes?” the university’s AAUP chapter asked. “The plan also indicates that staff will be delivering food and other supplies to students in quarantine; what plans are in place to ensure the safety of those who have repeated and direct contact with students who are sick?”
The full statement can be read online with this story at bgdailynews.com.