Student ‘sardines’ in classrooms amid COVID surge

critics: UNR policies inadequate and put students and faculty at risk

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Students shoulder-to-shoulder in a classroom in the basement of Frandsen Hall at the University of Nevada, Reno on Sept. 20.

The University of Nevada, Reno, is under fire from faculty members who are teaching in packed classrooms, have difficulty getting on-campus tests for COVID-19, and who say the university’s response to keeping people safe in the pandemic has been confusing, condescending and chaotic.

“The UNR administration is apparently under the impression that the pandemic is over and that it’s largely business as usual,” said Ashley Marshall, professor and chair of the Department of English at UNR. “…They have given up on social distancing, which means the classrooms are jam-packed, except where faculty are going rogue and running more of a HyFlex model, against the administration’s policy.”

Eight faculty members interviewed for this story also noted that the university health center has inadequate testing capacity and that UNR: is holding large events indoors; has an ineffective contact-tracing and positive test notification plan; and has blocked proactive policies without providing a clear rationale, including rejecting a program that tried to institute a mask mandate when classes returned in person in July just as the Delta variant was starting its rapid spread.

“The health of our instructors is of utmost importance to all of us… We will continue to work together in ensuring that success can be had by anyone who is part of the Wolf Pack Family. Our priority will always be our people.”

–  UNR President Brian Sandoval and top administrators, in messages to campus employees in August and September.

UNR responds

University officials responded to the Reno News & Review’s questions about the faculty’s concerns via an email from the UNR Office of Communications, which is published in full as a sidebar to this story. The email noted that UNR is following all state COVID-19 guidelines, including a mandate that masks be worn indoors.

In addition, university officials noted that all students will be required to provide proof of vaccinations in order to enroll in the 2022 spring semester and that a “remote work policy” has been approved and will go into effect in January 2022. Officials wrote that 83.4% of UNR employees have been vaccinated and that the campus contact-tracing system “has proven to be effective.”

“We continue to closely monitor the health of our University community, and the University is always ready to adjust or re-calibrate our efforts in the event the pandemic shifts for the worse,” the email concluded. “We remain extremely grateful for the extraordinary work that our faculty continues to do during this challenging time.”

Faculty members interviewed from Sept. 20 to Sept 22 agreed the UNR administration’s reactions to concerns often have been condescending or dismissive.

A ‘positive spin’

 “One of the major problems is the spin on communication is primarily about PR (public relations), putting a positive spin on things,” said Todd Ruecker, director of the Core Writing Program at UNR. “… We get emails about ‘instructors’ health is our first priority’; kind of these empty statements followed by an email that says to get your tests at Walmart.”

The problem, he said, is a lack of “real leadership on this issue, which entails risks and hard decisions that are not always popular.” Instead of being proactive and requiring masks and vaccine mandates earlier, for example, UNR officials waited for the state to take the lead.

The superficial message, he said, is “we care about you,” but the policy is to stay in the classroom no matter what. “There’s no real plan,” Ruecker said. “Do we transition out of the classroom if numbers get too high?  We don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening on campus. We have that COVID dashboard with some information, but we’re testing such a small fraction of this community…There’s no centralized testing and monitoring system.”

‘Smashed together’ in class

Cathy, 19, a student who attends classes in the Frandsen building and who didn’t want her last name published, said the small, old classrooms in that facility leaves students with no choice than to be “on top of each other.” She said she agrees with the mask mandate and thinks the university can do more to protect the community from the virus.

“We are packed in like sardines,” she said. “You hear that (phrase) a lot this semester.” She said the masks are uncomfortable, but knowing the virus may be in the air during her classes is a much worse feeling.

 Melissa Burnham, a professor of Human Development, Family Science and Early Childhood Education, said in her class, 45 students are “smashed together” with two students per table in a small space with no windows.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Students in Dr. Lydia Huerta Moreno’s class in Room 218 of Frandsen Hall at the University of Nevada, Reno, Sept. 20.

Some students work remotely

Within a couple weeks of the semester, Burnham said, about one-fourth of the class was self-isolating or worried about symptoms or feeling sick, “so they participate on Zoom. Normally I would say that’s a terrible (teaching) model, but this semester… I’ll figure it out.”

She noted that distancing is no longer required by the state, “but I think it would still be best practice to be distanced enough that we’re not potentially exposing each other to the virus during class.”

Burnham and other faculty members said that professors are scouring local drug stores in search of at-home test kits and sending out emails to alert their colleagues of where the tests can be purchased. “It’s great to have a network of people helping, but it’s also unnerving because everybody has felt the need to get a test, especially after teaching a big class and not knowing (if you’ve been exposed to the virus).”

“In addition to universal indoor masking, CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as screening testing.  

– Centers for Disease Control, Aug. 5, 2021.

Let them go to Walmart

Some faculty members also said they have children at home who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, or are older than 60 themselves or are caring for an elderly relative, or who have compromised immune systems that make them more at risk if they catch COVID-19. “We’re just waiting and hoping that there isn’t a death caused by UNR’s irresponsible practices,” a faculty member said.

At the start of the fall semester in August, the university advised students, faculty and staff members to go to the Student Health Center for COVID-19 testing. That facility, which serves about 20,000 students in addition to faculty and staff, can handle about 100 tests per day. That small sample has revealed a 10% positivity rate – twice what the World Health Organization recommends as a safe level for reopening.

An open letter to Sandoval, which has so far collected more than 70 signatures from faculty members, lists concerns and calls on the university leadership to implement effective and clear COVID-19 mitigation policies.

TWITTER IMAGE: UNR President Brian Sandoval’s tweets, above, went out on Sept. 11 and 12. Sandoval announced he tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 on Sept. 15. He said he would remain in isolation for 10 days and would return to campus when medically cleared. His annual State of the University address is scheduled in-person on Sept. 24 in the Milt Glick Ballroom inside the Joe Crowley Student Union on campus.

Inadequate testing

In the letter, faculty members note that the University of New Hampshire, which has 15,000 students and a reported 0.8% positivity rate, conducts about 2,500 tests weekly; the University of Arizona, with 44,000 students and a 2% positivity rate, does about 1,500 tests per weekday and recently rolled out an accessible take-home test option; the University of California, Davis, which has a vaccine requirement in place, requires routine asymptomatic testing of all members of its community; the University of Utah offers free asymptomatic testing for an entire household; and the contact-tracing team at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which has 26,600 students, recently won an award from the Nevada Public Health Association.

At UNR, faculty, staff and student positivity rates have varied wildly. The small testing sample size isn’t an indication of the actual spread of the virus on campus. The university isn’t getting more help from the state to improve testing capacity.

The positive COVID-19 test statistics on the UNR COVID Dashboard, which are updated weekly, only cover tests conducted at the campus health center or that have been self-reported by students or employees and are not indicative of the actual scope of the virus’ spread on campus.

Instead, a memo sent Sept. 16 to UNR faculty and staff, advised those on campus who need a test that “Because of the high demand for COVID-19 tests at our Student Health Center… we are encouraging all employees to seek COVID-19 testing elsewhere.” COVID-19 testing for employees at the Student Health Center has been “offered as a courtesy… in 2020; however, there are sufficient community resources available for employees to seek testing off campus as the Student Health Center staff focuses on its prescribed mission to provide healthcare for our students.”

‘Protect the Pack’

The memo noted that testing is available through the Washoe County Health DistrictSouthern Nevada Health District, providers on the Nevada Health Response website and “is also possible at two Walmart locations.”

The letter to Sandoval states that faculty members are excited to be back on campus and “desperately want to stay there.” But as cases of COVID-19 surge in the community and on campus, “it is clear that UNR is not taking to heart the stated goal to ‘Protect the Pack.’

“Due to the failure to plan and implement appropriate COVID protocols, faculty and students are experiencing repeated disruptions to in-person learning. Many courses have been forced to adopt ersatz hybrid modes of instruction with significant numbers of students out of the classroom due to exposure, limited and slow testing, and self-isolation. These disruptions have a negative impact on students in the classroom, as well as those who cannot attend.”

Going public a last resort 

Faculty members interviewed, all of whom signed the letter to Sandoval, said the administration has fallen short of its goal of protecting the campus community.

“We want to be on campus. We are willing to be on campus, even though the risks are significant,” Marshall wrote in an email to the RN&R. “But we’re on campus based on the premise and promise that there would be (a) same-day on-campus testing available to all who need it, and (b) timely notification of positive cases, as well as, perhaps, (c) a clear a policy, for better or worse, clearly communicated.”

Those three things are vital to sustaining this on-campus experiment, she wrote, but the administration is “failing on every single count.”

Ruecker said that it’s possible faculty members are thinking things are worse than they are, but with the lack of information and distrust of the data that is coming from the administration, it’s hard to tell. He noted that faculty members usually are reluctant to publically criticize the administration, and many fear retaliation if they do speak out, but following university complaint procedures had led nowhere.

“Silence is no longer an option,” he said.

New policies urged

The open letter to Sandoval urges the administration to adopt policies aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus, including:

  • Update the UNR community with a clear, accurate assessment of the current situation
  • Increase testing capacity and locations on campus, making it easily accessible for all students, faculty, and staff
  • Implement a clear plan for screening testing of asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff
  • Reduce the time it takes to receive test results
  • Invest additional resources and develop further guidance on how to use contact-tracing information
  • Set a clear threshold for which metrics determine a shift to online teaching and learning, whether university wide or by faculty/department discretion
  • Allow any student, faculty, or staff member to study/teach/work remotely if they have a family member at home who has tested positive or is required to quarantine
  • Implement the remote work policy immediately and in good faith for administrative faculty and staff who do not have student-facing roles, and provide clear rationales for denying remote work requests
  • Require that large indoor in-person events and meetings are held outdoors and/or remotely until we meet a clearly communicated threshold for holding these events safely
  • Make a clear policy for moving to remote operations when the air quality is considered hazardous.

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