COVID-19 contact tracing in classrooms get complicated

Should classmates be informed if a student tests positive after class?

Graphic by: Charlie Zitta | Production Assistant

Ferris’ contact tracing policies are starting to be questioned by students after a student tested positive the day after they were present at an in person class and most other students were not notified.

The Torch confirmed that the student  tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, Oct. 2. They were in class on Thursday, Oct. 1. Multiple students confirmed that there was not a class-wide email informing of their possible exposure by either the university or professor of communication Cami Sanderson. 

The student attended Sanderson’s 3 p.m. section of Persuasive Speaking on Thursday and said they immediately informed Sanderson of their test result, on Friday. In a Canvas message to students obtained by the Torch, Sanderson said she did not get tested until Monday morning. 

Sanderson canceled her in-person classes Monday, Oct. 5 after getting tested. In her message, she told her other class that she “might have been exposed to Covid 19,” but did not tell them where her possible exposure happened and did not inform her Persuasive Speaking class. Several students from her Persuasive Speaking class confirmed that they did not receive any form of communication from Sanderson or the university about the positive test result in their class.

The student who tested positive confirmed their test result with the Torch and, according to other students in the class, was in close contact with Sanderson, even handing her materials to help with speeches in class.  

Dean of Life Joy Pulsifer said that professors are not required under university policy to inform students if a classmate tests positive. 

“Faculty and staff are not expected to share with their classes when they are informed by a student that they tested positive and instead are asked to respect the privacy of the student involved,” Pulsifer said. 

If a student tests positive, the District Health Department or Birkam Health Center on campus would notify the students who were identified as close contacts, according to Pulsifer. 

“Generally students in class would not be considered a close contact so long as they are keeping at least 6 feet of distance between them and the positive students,” Pulsifer said. 

According to Birkam Director of Health Services Lindsay Barber, Ferris is following the guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This outlines “close contact” as someone who’s been within six feet of a COVID-positive person for 15 minutes or more. On this technicality, most students in a classroom are not considered close contact. When a student tests positive for COVID-19, Barber said they conduct a “health investigation” and ask the student who their close contacts are based on the CDC definition.

“We track back to two days prior to the onset of symptoms or two days prior to the positive test, if the person is asymptomatic, to list who they’ve been around in that context,” Barber said. “When we know who those contacts are, we then reach out to them by email to provide them with information and resources on how to quarantine for 14 days since their last exposure. We ask COVID positive students specifically about classroom work, activities and space.  We definitely do not work off of assumptions for these situations.  What we have found, though, is that most positive cases have either not been in the classroom prior to testing or were following the mitigation strategies set in place and therefore kept their fellow students safe.”

As it stands, sending a class-wide email informing all students that someone in their class tested positive is not part of Birkam’s contact tracing policy. 

Some students are concerned about the relaxed contact tracing, like English sophomore Angie Rosenthal.

“I always assumed that they would respect the privacy of students that get COVID-19, but I’m quite surprised they’re not informing classes that could’ve potentially been exposed,” Rosenthal said. “Now I’m worried that I wouldn’t know if someone in my hall got the virus.” 

Sophomore Brendan Deneen would prefer a stricter contact tracing policy, especially within face-to-face classrooms.

“I think that’s such b——-, if we go and get tested and get the results we should try and stop it at the source, instead of letting it keep leaking to more people in the classroom without even knowing it,” Deneen said. 

However, he acknowledged that these are completely unprecedented times for everyone involved.

“I think with it being a pandemic that happens once every 100 years, I think everyones learning, and I think this is a learning experience that we should minimize as many cases as we can,” Deneen said.