As a member of the faculty at SHSU who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, I begin by saying: I am disgusted. I am disgusted by the way a purported institution of higher learning that should serve as expert consultants and the moral compass for the local community has failed its students, faculty, and staff in its handling of the surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19 on campus.
On Tuesday, Sept. 7, the COVID Work Group, composed of top administrators and medical health professionals, held a town hall in Webinar format, which it broadcast to the entire university. Interestingly, it was not made accessible to the general public, as login credentials for the university were required to access the stream.
Yet, as of this morning, it is accessible to the public here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXfjD91nNmU&ab_channel=SamHoustonStateUniversity
The continual use of the word “enthusiasm” was among the most egregious and upsetting factors involved in the “town hall” (so named since they solicited questions in advance from the campus community and clearly prepared answers that were often read off the screen). From the outset, it was evident they wanted to promote a feeling of good cheer, indeed of “enthusiasm” - which Rhonda Beassie, a Human Resources representative who was acting as moderator, pointed out repeatedly as panelists completed their responses to questions. At one point, she herself enthusiastically exclaimed that COVID-19 has “bred ingenuity” at SHSU. By my count, however, the only thing COVID-19 has “bred” at SHSU is more cases of COVID-19. The public-facing dashboard boasts 773 cases reported since January 1, 2021. At the start of the term, that number was under 500, meaning nearly 300 people have reported positive cases since the fall semester got underway on August 16th.
That number was strategically avoided in the Town Hall, as instead, they chose to focus on the rate of positivity, which is calculated by taking the number of positive cases and dividing it by the total number of tests administered. If testing increases, as it did in the week they chose to spotlight to claim that we have “positive numbers” – a poor choice of words given their clear goal to dissuade anyone from thinking we have a crisis on our hands – then even when people test positive in high numbers the rate of positivity declines. This means that we could have more cases self-reported (note: self-reported) in a one-week period (8/30-9/03 = 23) than in a previous week (8/09-8/13 = 9), but the rate of positivity is lower even as the number of infections is higher.
As the numbers in Walker County continue to spike, as Huntsville Memorial Hospital thanks the Office of Emergency Management for the medical tent that will allow them to address ER overflow and expand monoclonal antibody infusion treatments for COVID patients, the “experts” at SHSU assure us all that everything is fine.
One of them even joked that students should avoid others who are sick as a strategy for staying healthy – that they should treat the sick as if it [this campus, presumably] was the Walking Dead (a TV series about the zombie apocalypse). Not only is this kind of humor completely out of step with the seriousness a pandemic costing 650,000 American lives should elicit, but it directly contradicts the Working Group’s policy not to notify faculty when students in their classes test positive. How can we avoid the sick – or encourage our students to maintain a safe distance in isolation, or within the classroom – if we do not even know who they are?
It is important to note that the Work Group tried to defend this decision not to report positive cases because of a need to be “judicious” about the definition of close contact, that is, being within six feet of a person with COVID for fifteen minutes or more. Because of the return to 100% normal face-to-face operations (even as the status of community transmission is reported by the University to be high), classrooms are no longer spaced for social distancing. Students sit shoulder to shoulder with one another for fifty minutes at a minimum. The Work Group’s suggestion? Faculty should keep a seating chart to help them with their under-manned efforts at contact tracing. It is hard to imagine how this would work since faculty themselves are not notified when students test positive in their classes.
This brings me to my final point: though the webinar closed with an offensive question about whether being in good health, to begin with, would arm the body to fight against infectious disease (thereby discriminating against campus community members with pre-existing medical conditions or comorbidities that arise from systemic inequities), one thing they left out entirely is the issue of children and the immune-compromised.
Not only faculty, but numerous continuing education and first-generation students care for elderly family members and children, the latter of whom are currently unable to be vaccinated. Dr. Candace Walkley claimed we’ll see the virus “croppin’ up in little babies and out there in elderly people and people who are losing their immunity” as part of its natural course, suggesting that we are making progress toward (herd) immunity. But what of the faculty, staff, and students who could be unwittingly carrying the highly contagious Delta variant home to those who remain completely vulnerable to infection? On this matter, the Work Group was entirely silent.
In a moment of unguarded honesty, Dr. Drew Miller admitted it would “add up to a lot” if the University tried to defy Governor Abbott’s order banning mask mandates. It was clear in the way the Work Group prioritized the “transformative experience” of college over the medical emergency they would prefer to cover up with enthusiastic good cheer, and indeed, in the continual references to legal counsel’s advice, that protection of the University from liability and of its tuition-based resources from shrinkage is SHSU’s foremost concern.