• Boston University faculty and students are at odds with the school’s administration over its response to the coronavirus.
  • BU provost Jean Morrison announced that professors will not be notified if students test positive for the coronavirus, citing “strict privacy of everyone’s test status.”
  • Nathan Phillips, a professor of earth and environment at BU, condemned the privacy policy. “I don’t think it’s about privacy; I think it’s about secrecy,” Phillips told Insider.
  • Tensions are high as in-person classes are set to start on Wednesday.
  • Sign up for our new parenting newsletter Insider Parenting here.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Boston University announced that it wouldn’t notify professors if a student in their class tested positive for the coronavirus, citing “strict privacy of everyone’s test status.”

Many faculty and students are not happy with that announcement, or other policies the school has taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In-person classes are set to start on Wednesday.

“The efficacy of contact tracing is entirely dependent on the accuracy of the data shared by the individual who has tested positive,” BU provost Jean Morrison wrote.

She continued: “If students do not feel their privacy is protected, they may be less likely to fully and honestly participate in contact tracing, putting us all at higher risk. … I know this decision will be a disappointment to some of you, but I hope that you understand that we have made this decision with the ultimate goal of keeping all faculty, staff, and students as safe as possible.”

Judy Platt, director of Student Health Services at Boston University, echoed Morrison’s sentiment on protecting students’ privacy by refusing to disclose if they tested positive, saying students would not be compelled to “tell us the information that we need to know in order to keep them safe, or keep the campus safe.”

“We’ve always held the line that unless there is an immediate threat to someone’s safety, we are not going to disclose health-related information,” Platt told BU Today. “To do something differently for this, when we’ve always had a standard practice of confidentiality and privacy guarantees, I think would significantly undermine the efforts of contact tracing.”

The university instituted its own testing and contact tracing infrastructure and set up a community dashboard to track on-campus cases. It will disclose positive tests to the public health authority, BU Today reported.

But some faculty and students are worried the administration’s coronavirus response could end up forcing classes online, or result in more infections.

boston university

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Faculty and students are scared

In the comment section of the BU Today article, nearly two dozen people — from students and faculty to concerned parents — slammed the privacy policy and accused the university of weakening an effective approach to contact tracing of cases on campus by implementing it.

Daniel Star, an associate professor of philosophy at Boston University, penned a blog post labeling the university’s approach to testing and contact tracing “arguably a misleading and negligent policy statement.”

“This policy choice is also negligent, because it attempts to prevent instructors from taking a course of action that is now widely recognized to be morally required by appropriately evolving public health standards,” Star wrote on the community blog “With All Due Caution,” which it says compiles “commentary about university affairs.”

Nathan Phillips, a professor of earth and environment at BU, condemned the policy, describing the university’s justification behind it as “disingenuous.”

“I don’t think it’s about privacy; I think it’s about secrecy,” Phillips told Insider, adding, “The right thing to do, the moral thing to do, the scientific thing to reduce risk would be to go remote for a couple of weeks in the event that there was knowledge that there was a positive case that was in the class.”

He added that such knowledge would “essentially be like the collapse of a house of cards,” as the campus would “quickly drive to an all-remote situation in that event.”

A rising senior at BU’s College of Engineering, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, acknowledged the posed risk to potentially violate a person’s right to privacy regarding their health, but they said “the greater risk is potentially having a super-spreader event on campus.”

“That may end up shifting a significant number of classes online and possibly even canceling part of the semester,” the student told Insider.

“It’s not that difficult to just tell people, ‘Hey, you came in contact with someone [who tested positive for the coronavirus],'” the student said, adding that the university should at the very least notify staff and students in a general sense if they came in contact with someone who tested positive, without identifying them.

Phillips said he has taken it upon himself to conduct his fall semester courses with the risk of coronavirus in mind — hosting outdoor courses that will be livestreamed to remote students.

He said he also purchased a portable camp toilet to be used outdoors so he and his students wouldn’t have to go indoors to use the bathroom, as the lack of proper ventilation inside buildings increases the risk of coronavirus spread.

The university has implemented certain policies to mitigate the spread of the virus, including campus-wide testing efforts for students and faculty and banning large gatherings of more than 25 people on and off campus.

‘It was wrong for us to be excluded from this because we’re in the classrooms, too’

But Phillips alleged the university has not been hearing the pleas from faculty and staff to do more to protect them and their students.

“The administration and the way they’ve set this situation up has just excluded so many of the instructional staff from being a part [of the discussion],” he told Insider. “Community and collective decision making has not been exercised here. We’ve been left out.”

The engineering student also said they felt that students at the university have also been left out of the conversation.

“I feel like sometimes when these policies happen, students are a little bit excluded from … the discourse, which is kind of defeating the point, because a lot of the BU efforts in reopening happens to be very undergraduate-centric,” the student told Insider. They added: “I think that it was wrong for us to be excluded from this because we’re in the classrooms, too.”

Phillips accused the university board of taking an “individualized” approach to a “community health problem in too many ways.”

“They made a decision early on to make decisions in a top-down manner,” he said, adding, “If they would have engaged in a community decision-making process, I think we would have solved everything.”

Representatives from Boston University did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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