Students at the Boston University School of Public Health have expressed their displeasure with the administration’s decision to remain entirely in-person this semester, despite a high rate of positive COVID-19 cases, both in an open letter to the SPH Dean Sandro Galea and an online petition.
The letter called on SPH to either reinstate the LFA 2020-2021 school year policy – which allowed students to attend classes in person or remotely – or start the semester remotely and then reassess the situation after two weeks based on the number of positive cases.
“The best learning environment is not, and never has been, one where students actively fear for their health in order to receive a high-level education,” the letter states.
BU’s positivity rate ranged from 0.3% to 0.5% in previous semesters, but has increased significantly lately, hitting a record high of 12.69% on January 8.
The letter went on to say that while the decision to reopen last fall was made when the number of COVID-19 cases was at an “all-time high”, the same cannot be said for the spring semester.
“Comparing our Delta variant safety data to what is happening now with Omicron is like comparing a wave to a tsunami,” the letter says.
In response to the open letter, Galea wrote that the health risks of contracting the Omicron variant are minimal, citing data reported in The New York Times to support the decision to go entirely in person.
“These decisions are made with two key principles in mind,” Galea said. “One is wanting to keep the community safe, and the second is providing a great education.”
Galea said in his response that he stands by the decisions of the University, while noting that they are “in no way easy or straightforward.”
“Having thought a lot about this, after consulting public health colleagues at our university and beyond who have also been thinking about this for two years now, I think this is the right approach,” he said.
On the other hand, SPH graduate students have also started an online petition and garnered over 400 signatures as of January 18 urging, as “teachers and researchers”, BU to change its COVID-19 mandates for the semester of spring.-person- person
The petition, job on social media forums like Reddit, called for providing personal protective equipment to instructors, researchers and staff, allowing instructors to teach remotely at their discretion and providing social distancing options for in-person classes .
Jordan Pickard, a third-year doctoral student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and one of the students behind the petition, said she believes previously implemented blended learning options provide opportunities for immunocompromised students and faculty.
“We don’t understand why, in this time of unprecedented cases, they took that option away from those most at risk,” they said.
BU spokesman Colin Riley said the decision to continue in-person learning for the spring semester was bolstered by its effectiveness last fall, adding that although cases have increased since the discovery of the new variant, Omicron “doesn’t seem to be as serious” as its predecessors.
“The most important thing is that there are tens of thousands of students who may enroll because of these decisions on behalf of senior administration,” Riley said. “They are doing what they believe is in the best interest.”
Jack Rubinstein, an SPH masters student who joined several other students in writing the open letter, said he disagreed with SPH and BU’s approach, he thinks Galea’s response was “incredibly respectful”.
“Public health is a somewhat imperfect science, there is no one right answer,” he said. “While I disagree with the approach of the School of Public Health and BU in general, I respect that it is a more optimistic approach than I would take.”
But some students have expressed apprehension and concern over BU’s handling of the rising positivity rate, particularly regarding the University’s quarantine procedures.
Trinity Rieck, a freshman at the College of Arts and Sciences, said she caught COVID-19 shortly before returning to campus and was surprised to learn that BU placed her with a roommate while she was isolated.
“Even though there are separate bedrooms, you still have to share a kitchen, you probably have to share a bathroom,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a safe idea.”
Ianeth Sanchez, the CAS manager, said she disagreed with the decision to reduce the isolation period from 10 days to five. President Robert Brown announcement the change in early January following official guidance from the Center for Disease Control.
“We’re going to keep prolonging the problem if we keep minimizing it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the best decision. I think 10 days of isolation is enough.
The BU administration has also distributed four free KN95 masks to students, professors and testing center staff as part of its new strategy to curb the spread of the virus. BU is also requiring undergraduate students to test for COVID-19 at least twice a week, an effort to reduce the spread.
Pickard said BU has done a good job in implementing these policies.
“BU has done things that have worked very well in previous semesters,” they said. “I would like to see them continue to operate with this level of alertness, or higher, rather than decreasing this protocol prematurely.”