Thoughts on Teaching – Teaching in a Pandemic – Cases and Quarantines – 09/20/2020

Continuing my reflections on what it has been like here in the first quarter of the semester, I wanted to reflect some today on the cases and quarantines.

We have a real issue with the number of cases and quarantines, and that has mostly to do with HIPAA. We are not allowed to ask about private medical information, and the college is not allowed to publish names of those who have tested positive. We have a general requirement on campus that is as follows:

Employees are expected to immediately notify their supervisor and the Department of Human Resources. Supervisors are expected to report on behalf of employees if the employee is not able to self-report. Employees should contact the Department of Human Resources once physically able to do so. Employees may be eligible to use COVID-19 leave if they meet certain federal requirements. Employees who have tested positive may return to work as recommended by their health care provider, normally after a 14-day isolation period. Supervisors will be responsible for assistance with contact tracing. This is critical to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Supervisors will be expected to retrieve the employee’s daily log of appointments with the help of Technology Services and report the information to the Department of Human Resources.

Students are expected to report positive tests to the Student Services Department. The Student Services Department will work with the student to develop contact tracing in the event the student was on a College campus while COVID-19 positive. Students who have tested positive may return to F2F classes as recommended by their health care provider, normally after a 14-day isolation period. All medical information collected will be held in strict confidence in accordance with legal requirements.

Name/severity of conditions will not be identified in any notification the College is required to release. The Department of Human Resources will be responsible for notifying employees of information; Student Services will be responsible for notifying students of COVID-19 positive contacts.

That is a very long set of rules on what must be done. However, you will note that the first sentence of each of the first two paragraphs includes the word “expected.” That is what worries me.

Here is what I know:

  • I have had two cases of students who have been quarantined in my hybrid courses from exposure to someone who was positive. Both are students who self-reported to me that this was the case, and neither had actually been in class since they were exposed.
  • I have two students who were reported to me as being quarantined. The softball team was exposed with at least one positive COVID-19 case on the team. They are all quarantined. I have two softball players in my online classes, and so I was not exposed to them.
  • There have officially been 17 positive COVID-19 cases reported on all campuses, which is 13 students and 4 faculty/staff

That’s the extent of what I know. And my worry goes back to the question of “expected.” I expect that our case count on my community college should be low. The majority of our students are commuter students. We have a small dorm population (under 300 for a campus of about 6000 students), and so there is less opportunity for spread from a dorm-living situation as there is at a lot of 4-year universities. So, the majority of what would be here would be community spread. And, if everyone is wearing their mask and behaving responsibly, then there should not be that much spread.

However, without widespread testing and with only an “expectation” that people report, I don’t really have any idea what is going on. I assume that we are doing relatively well, and our numbers are certainly low. In fact, I sincerely hope that we stay very low in cases. I just worry if we are getting the whole picture.

This is not unique to my college at all. It is the same thing I worry about going out in public anywhere that we go. I have two sons who are also going to my community college, and so realistically, there are three of us scattered throughout college buildings and classrooms who could be exposed. One of my sons had his class meet virtually last week because the professor had positive cases in the class, but I don’t know when those cases were and if my son was exposed. Both of my daughters are currently in online schooling, but we are considering sending the youngest back to in-person school, as the online schooling is really rough on all of us. That will be one more exposure vector to worry about. And, for each of us, there’s the question of bringing it back to a 6-person household.

(And, as an aside, yes, we had an encounter at a local store last week where there was a family of five where none were wearing masks in a store where masks are required. Not only were they not asked to leave or wear a mask, but the young kids were running up and down aisles while the husband was calling people who showed displeasure at their behavior “sheep” for wearing masks. He was very obviously looking for a confrontation, and we quickly wrapped our shopping up and got out of there.)

So, what I can say is that I am worried. I’m worried that there are more cases than reported, both at the college and in the larger community, because we don’t have widespread testing. I am worried that, despite everything we are doing to try and stay safe, simply the fact that a number of us are going out of the house and into public regularly means that we are going to bring it home.

But what I really worry about is the problem of how hard it is to prove a negative. Every time I think about it, I can see ways I could be exposed. It is hard to prove safety from exposure. It is hard to prove that everyone around me has been trying to be as safe and protected as I have been. It is hard to know what level of risk I’m at on a day-to-day basis.

I hope that there are only 17 cases at the community college where I work, and I hope that everything I am doing is keeping me and my family safe. But I don’t know. To echo how I ended my last post, it is just one more thing…

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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