Administration officials at the University of Alabama reportedly instructed professors to keep quiet about the outbreak of more than 500 coronavirus cases, instructing them in an email not to tell their students if someone in a class tests positive.
The email, obtained by the Daily Beast, comes amid a massive rise in COVID-19 cases since classes resumed on Aug. 19 at the Tuscaloosa, Ala., school.
“Do not tell the rest of the class,” the email to the politics department reads, with the word “not” underlined.
The email reportedly states that students who test positive are not considered an exposure risk if masks were worn and social distancing was practiced, suggesting that students and the professor may never be informed if there was an infected person in a class.
According to the outlet, other departments also warned teachers against posting on social media under the claim that it could constitute a HIPAA violation.
Alabama Provost James Dalton sent an email to faculty on Tuesday again stating that professors are not responsible for reporting positive cases to their students or the school because the university has a “robust program” for alerting exposed parties.
“If the established rules for masks and physical distancing are followed in the classroom, then the risk of transmission from the positive student is minimal, and it is not necessary to inform the rest of the class they may have been in the same room as a positive classmate,” the email obtained by the outlet states. “For privacy reasons, the instructor should not announce to the class that a student in the class tested positive, even anonymously.”
When asked for comment, Associate VP for Communications Monica Watts directed the Daily Beast to the official guidance on the school's website.
The website states that “for privacy reasons, the instructor should not announce to the class that a student in the class has tested positive, even anonymously.”
Professors can request confirmation through a 30-second self-reported questionnaire called the US Healthcheck system to “verify that students are in compliance with all health and safety protocols,” Watts added.
If a student tests positive on campus, the COVID Support Program is automatically informed and the university reaches out. However, the Daily Beast noted that students who are tested by an off-campus provider are expected to notify the school’s COVID-19 hotline or go through an online reporting portal.
Michael Innis-Jimenez, an American studies professor, told the outlet that a lot of his colleagues are “terrified.” The instructor said he shifted to teaching his classes remotely after learning the school’s plan for reopening.
“Every statement at least for the last month has been about this plan, they’ve got this plan,” he said, before adding, “It makes it feel like a lot of this is for show, especially when they don’t want you to confirm it’s not working.”
At least 531 students, staff and faculty have tested positive for coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox (D) ordered bars and restaurants with bar service to close for two weeks following a surge in cases.
“My hope is that this will be just a brief pause on their plans to reopen and that we can get this in our rearview mirror sooner, rather than later. Clearly, it takes everyone working together to keep Alabama moving in the right direction,” Maddox said at a press conference.
Several universities have seen surges in coronavirus cases since reopening. The University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill both moved classes online following spikes in COVID-19 cases among students.