Was it the person sitting 100 seats away from me in my musicology lecture? Or maybe the person coughing next to me in my 15-person section in the basement of North Quad Residence Hall? If only there was some way to know!
Until very recently, the University of Michigan sent notification telling students they shared a class with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Admittedly, we weren’t told what room, when we were in that room or what class the exposure occurred in — but, it was better than nothing. Given that the University opted to stop providing any notice of potential contact in the classroom, students need to rise to the occasion to take care of each other — we are our best asset in protecting each other and our community.
As living with COVID-19 has become a longer-term reality, assessing risk and weighing exposure has become an important part of day-to-day life. Now that the University has ceased to provide any information regarding potential exposure in the classroom, making smart and safe health decisions is even more difficult. While I previously knew to avoid seeing a severely immunocompromised friend because I may have been exposed to COVID-19, now it is much more difficult to make pandemic-conscious decisions.
As we clearly can’t rely on the University to provide us with information regarding our exposure on campus, I propose that students take this issue into our own hands — we should be forthcoming with our professors and peers when we have COVID-19. It could be anything as simple as, “Hey Professor X, I wanted to let you know that I tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be attending class this week,” to as specific as, “Hey Professor X, I sit in the fourth seat of row three, next to (insert people) and have been symptomatic; please let the class know.” Either of these messages (or anything in between) could be incredibly instrumental in keeping a classroom safe.
But why should the responsibility to inform fall on us? The University’s attempts at community care have been half-assed, to put it lightly. Policies like mandatory testing were replaced with optional testing and mandatory ResponsiBLUE checks to enter buildings were replaced with… nothing. The University shirked its responsibility for student health and safety and left a void of coherent policy and information that needs to be filled.
Informing a professor that you attended class while unknowingly infected with COVID-19 could help them decide to hold the next meeting on Zoom to mitigate the risk of further infection. Letting the class know you tested positive could help stop those near you from endangering a friend or family member. This simple action could greatly benefit the community’s risk assessment and subsequent decision-making. Consider having a conversation with students in your class, your graduate student instructor or a professor about finding ways to keep the class informed for each other’s sake.
Now, there is always the position that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA privacy laws, protect Americans from having to share this information. Vaccination status or COVID-19 positivity are both argued to be protected information that people can’t be forced to share against their will. While the legitimate argument surrounding health privacy rights is far more complex than many contributors to the national conversation around COVID-19 privacy understand it to be, this is a situation where health information would be fully volunteered. Simply put, no one would be forcing you to volunteer your COVID-19 test results to your classmates; it would be truly up to you to do the right thing.
That being said, with little to nothing to lose by keeping your class informed about your COVID-19 positivity and a lot to be gained by helping those around you to make fully informed decisions, there really is no reason not to do it. If you test positive, take this small step to help out the community. Let those you interact with either inside or outside of the classroom know, and take your recovery seriously. The more we work together as a community, the easier it will be to live with this pandemic.
Andrew Gerace is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.