Staff Editorial: We need transparency before it’s too late

Students have been back on campus for over a month now, and while this situation certainly isn’t anywhere near normal, things seem to be going smoother than many may have expected. The University continues to hold in-person classes and students haven’t been told to move out of the dorms immediately like in the spring. All circumstances and Instagram posts about students breaking social distancing guidelines considered, things seem to be going better than expected. This is partially due to the efforts of many in the student body, but it also suggests that perhaps the Wash. U. community isn’t getting the full picture.

Wash. U.’s COVID-19 dashboard seems to support the idea that the University is handling the virus better than other universities, as we’ve only had 66 confirmed student cases since the beginning of August, whereas other Missouri schools have had hundreds.

Wash. U. recently changed its campus alert level from orange to yellow, signifying that “current regional and campus conditions are stable and reassuring.” Furthermore, the University changed their Thanksgiving policy from prohibiting students who travel outside of St. Louis from returning, to “strongly recommending” that students stay within the St. Louis area for the holiday. But these changes are concerning, as they raise many questions that seem to not have any answers. What conditions signaled to administrators that it was okay to change the alert level? What data was used to decide this? Essentially, we’re meant to blindly trust what we’re being told and that we’re “doing well.”

There’s no available criteria to gauge how effectively Wash. U. is managing the virus apart from the dashboard, nor is there consistent communication as to how the alert-color system will inform safety guidelines as the virus progresses. The color system seems arbitrary, and without more clarity, creates more questions than answers.

In comparison to St. Louis University, for example, which outlined potential testing strategies and explained why they chose their current testing model, Wash. U. has largely left us in the dark about their thought process. Additionally, a study led by the Yale School of Public Health argued that students on college campuses need to be tested every two to three days to safely reopen. Every university has a different protocol this semester, and that is okay, but students have a right to know how and why these decisions are made, as these directions directly impact our health and safety.

That’s not to say that any of the information on the page is inaccurate or wrong, but if Wash. U. is only surveillance testing students every two weeks, are we really getting the most useful, up-to-date information that we could? The infrequency of testing could make it harder to measure the magnitude of an outbreak right away; it might be two weeks too late before the scale of the spread is accurately reported, and by that point, it might be too late to contain it.

Yes, students are required to complete a self-screening before coming to campus every day, but if administrators aren’t enforcing that policy, the system is not nearly as effective as it should be.

Even if Wash. U. itself is managing the virus well, what about the rest of St. Louis and Missouri? With active cases at high levels across the city, county and state, it is simply untrue to claim that regional conditions are “stable and reassuring.”

We have no way of knowing how the University is considering St. Louis and Missouri in their decision-making process, because that information isn’t available anywhere. There’s a serious lack of transparency and clarity about the University’s efforts to manage the virus, and it potentially places the Washington University and St. Louis community in danger, especially with more students living off campus this year than initially planned. More students are interacting with the campus community and greater St. Louis community simultaneously, and the University bears at least some of the responsibility for making sure students interact with both communities safely.

There is validity to the argument that more frequent testing could create a false sense of security—if students receive a negative test, they might be more tempted to host social gatherings or go outside without a mask more often than they would otherwise. However, as the current system stands, this false sense of security lasts for two weeks, as opposed to 2 or 3 days should we test more frequently.

We worry that Wash. U.’s lack of detailed information and transparency about their rationale for how to contain the virus could lead to a false sense of security. We don’t have a clear or strict enough protocol to know if the testing system is actually working well. Just because we haven’t encountered an outbreak yet doesn’t mean it will stay that way for the rest of the semester, or that our system is foolproof enough to contain one.

All it takes is one irresponsible act to trigger an outbreak with dire consequences, and students need to remain vigilant. In order to properly defend against COVID-19 and keep the student body, staff, faculty and St. Louis community safe, students need to stay properly informed, and that starts with the University. It starts with clear guidelines, enforced testing policies and above all, transparency.

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