Open Letter to ISU Administration for COVID-19 data transparency

Open Letter to ISU Administration for COVID-19 data transparency

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Iowa State University Graduate Students started this petition to Iowa State University Administration

To the Iowa State University Administration, 

Last Sunday, The New York Times ranked Ames Iowa as the worst COVID-19 hotspot per-capita in the nation.  Due to the nature of infectious diseases and pandemics, if the University continues on its current course we can only expect this outbreak to get worse.  Each week the positive test rates climb, but classes continue to be held in person and no substantive changes are made.  In official communications we are told that the University has a plan for worsening scenarios, with plans for transitions to partially and completely online classes outlined. However, metrics for using these scenarios have not been shared.  We are uncertain if the University is adequately considering the risks to the ISU and Ames community with their current path, as no information has been offered about the risk level faculty, staff, teaching assistants, and students face in the meantime. 

We quote from a recent email: 

         “We are only changing class modality based on AWAs at this time.  We are not making changes based on number of students in isolation/quarantine.  There are not target numbers at the university for moving courses online.  [emphasis added]  We need to be able to respond to individual situations in an optimal manner and the unconstrained solution to an optimization problem is always at least as good or better than a constrained one, i.e. one bound by targets.” 

ーAssociate Dean Arne Hallam

The motto of Iowa State University of Science and Technology is “Science with Practice.”  While the Associate Dean Hallam’s statement may be true in pure mathematical contexts, there is no reason to believe that this is true in the current highly politicized situation.  Good science demands transparency of data and consistent, publicly available benchmarks.  We find the University’s current approach to be deeply concerning and inconsistent with its own scientific values. 

Beyond the questionable scientific validity of processes without quantifiable numbers or milestones for triggering the process of moving online, the University’s policy of opaque processes and secrecy is disconcerting.  Graduate Students are expected to teach in the classroom and face high risk of exposure, so it is vitally important that we have the necessary information to assess the risk level and make informed decisions about our health and safety.   

Data available to us indicate a concerning trend, in only week 2 of the semester, 10% of students in the introductory biology labs were absent for COVID-19-related reasons.  This is an unprecedented number of absences in these courses which serve ~1300 students and typically depend on in-person attendance.  The administration has stated in town halls and other venues that it appears that the measures taken in classrooms have proven sufficient.  We celebrate this news.  But controlling in-class and on-campus rates is not enough when the University is also a major driver of soaring off-campus infection rates.    

ISU’s decision to hold in-person classes has consequences for students and for the wider Ames community.  Students do not exist in an on-campus bubble, and it is deeply irresponsible to pretend they do.  They go off-campus to their apartments, to buy groceries, or for other essential services.  Because of this, only considering in-class transmission provides a deeply flawed picture of the data and of the public health consequences of the University’s decisions.  The administration has tried to take steps to recognize this by threatening suspension for students who violate public health and safety guidelines both on- and off-campus.  This policy will likely not drive the changes it was intended to as it faces vague and inconsistent enforcement and risks students hiding symptoms from fear of retaliation. Consequently, the most important step the University can take at this time is to increase transparency of its COVID-19 response plan.

While we all appreciate the vitality that undergrads bring to town and understand their importance for the overall health of the University, we worry that the risks have dramatically increased upon opening the University and that community health is being treated in a cavalier manner.  By failing to communicate the standards and data that these decisions are based on, students, faculty, staff, and community members are not given the opportunity to provide feedback on these policies—yet open, honest communication is essential to building strong community relationships. This lack of transparency and communication is inconsistent with ISU’s Principles of Community, which all campus members are expected to abide by. Graduate students and others across campus have been active for months in submitting questions and concerns regarding campus reopening, but our questions frequently go unanswered or are given inadequate responses. It feels as if our feedback is not being considered and our requests for information are ignored when it might risk complicating the University’s plans. 

While no plan is perfect the University’s plan has a few particularly concerning components, which we would like to address.  On-campus testing turns away asymptomatic individuals, yet there is near-consensus among experts in the field that this process completely misses the many asymptomatic spreaders of the disease, and is not sufficient to contain the spread.  People who know that they are sick and decide to get tested will likely make the decision to stay home regardless of whether or not they can secure a test.  People who are asymptomatic do not have the same reasons to avoid risky behavior, and can easily go on to unknowingly become super-spreaders because they do not know that they are sick.   

The University’s initial plan also relied on young adults adhering to strict social distancing and mask guidelines—individuals who have repeatedly been denied life milestones by this pandemic and appear to be especially negatively impacted by social isolation.  We recognize that personal responsibility is expected of all of us at this time and is a critical component of managing the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not want to minimize the responsibility that individuals have for their own choices and behavior.  At the same time, any COVID-19 plan which depends on college students willingly socially distancing and forgoing large gatherings is clearly naïve optimism at best.     

We call on this University to be transparent with their plans for responding to COVID-19 outbreaks.  We implore the University administration to publicize and clearly share the metrics which are used to assess risk levels, as well as hypothetical data-driven scenarios which may lead to changes in modality, a shift to fully online instruction, and other major changes in policy. If we have learned nothing else from these last few months, we have come to recognize that this pandemic is a complex, fast-changing situation, that hypotheticals and future plans are not prescriptions, and that responses may need to be adapted as situations progress. Providing data-driven scenarios and metrics will empower ISU and Ames community members to accurately assess their personal risk and make scientifically informed health decisions. As members of the community significantly affected by the risks that the University takes with COVID-19, we feel compelled to request more access to the data and the decision making process.  As scholars we know that knowledge is our first line of defense in this pandemic. Indeed, knowledge is power; we call on the Iowa State University Administration to help us exercise it.  

Sincerely,

Iowa State Graduate Students

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