Staff Editorial: WSU should worry more about the spread of COVID-19 than the spread of information

"A lack of transparency allows the university to make policy decisions with minimal accountability to public opinion. While that may be politically expedient for university administration, it is catastrophic in terms of public health on campus, not to mention highly unethical for a publicly funded institution," writes The Sunflower's Editorial Board.

Staff+Editorial%3A+WSU+should+worry+more+about+the+spread+of+COVID-19+than+the+spread+of+information

A lack of transparency has marked Wichita State University’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Instructors are not allowed to inform students if one of their classmates has tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email obtained by The Sunflower. University officials have also said that one of the reasons behind this decision is “privacy concerns.”  

The university should be more concerned about the spread of the virus than the spread of information.

Not notifying students of possible exposure deprives them of their right to make informed personal health decisions. University officials have attempted to use Kansas laws regarding public health and privacy to justify this university policy, citing a bill that authorizes only health officials to conduct contact tracing.

Frank LeMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, told The Sunflower that the university’s claim that state law prohibits them from informing students doesn’t hold up.

“Contact tracing has a very specific meaning – it means doing the detective work and tracking down and notifying the people in the patient’s network,” LeMonte said. “Notifying people that they might have been exposed does not meet the definition of contact tracing.”

With no legal basis to forbid faculty from informing students about positive cases in their classroom, it would seem the university’s motive in doing so is merely reputation management. If sick students are invisible, then the university appears to be doing a good job at containing the virus, and is thus able to justify the fiscally-driven decision to keep campus open. 

The catch? More students get sick. Not to mention the public has no way of knowing if faculty and staff are sick or healthy.

The university has been opaque in regards to COVID-19 case numbers on campus as well. WSU didn’t start publishing their COVID-19 test results until well after Kansas State University and The University of Kansas. However, unlike the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, WSU is only publishing student statistics who were tested at the Student Health Center.

Both K-State and KU are publishing data breaking down the number of students in housing who are in isolation and quarantine. WSU has not provided details about the status of on-campus residents and COVID-19 infection.

Since early August, K-State has conducted over 4,000 tests while KU has conducted over 25,000. Of course, when student body sizes are accounted for, one expects the larger universities to have conducted more tests. That being said, the percentage of the student body tested is higher at K-State and KU. In the same period of time WSU has only conducted 1,594 tests as of Sept. 4. In addition to being significantly smaller than the test numbers at other state universities, this number does not equate to the university’s claim that they have tested all on-campus residents and athletes. 

According to a 2019 WSU strategic communications report on campus residents totaled approximately 1,500 students. Collegefactual.com reports that WSU has over 400 student athletes. This would mean the university should have, at minimum, tested approximately 2000 students.

A lack of transparency allows the university to make policy decisions with minimal accountability to public opinion. While that may be politically expedient for university administration, it is catastrophic in terms of public health on campus, not to mention highly unethical for a publicly funded institution.

It is time that university administrators remember that they are not the university. They are temporary servants of the university and its mission to educate. Short-sighted politics are not in the best interests of the community which the university is designed to serve and which it depends on for revenue and human resources.

WSU must do its due diligence by encouraging faculty to inform students about positive cases in their classes.