Total cases of COVID-19 are still going up at UMD. Why are there in-person classes?

The Thomas V. Miller Jr. Administration Building on Sept. 7, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

One month ago, University of Maryland President Darryll Pines announced that, despite the ongoing pandemic, the university would continue its plan to start in-person undergraduate classes. In this email, Pines casually mentioned the university’s 135 positive COVID-19 tests over two weeks of testing, lauding the 0.7 percent positivity rate. Regardless, with an additional 143 self-reported cases, Pines decided that almost 300 people contracting COVID-19 over this period was a safe number (because low positivity!) and sent students forward to interact with faculty, staff and each other.

Using positivity rate as a primary statistic isn’t a new practice for the administration. When initially delaying the start of in-person classes, Pines used an elevated Prince George’s County positivity rate to defend his decision. In this email, he introduced his fixation on the rate, writing that the decision to reopen would be based on “county and campus positivity rates, availability and need for isolation and quarantine spaces, and other key health factors as campus activity resumes.” Notably, this list of criteria didn’t include the total number of cases. 

The same issue is evident on the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard’s overview graphic includes six statistics: number of tests administered by the university in the past week, positivity rate from the past week, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the past week, relative campus density, Prince George’s County’s positivity rate, and percentage of available quarantine and isolation housing. Of its six most showcased pieces of data, the university includes two positivity rates — and no count of cumulative cases in the community. 

Frankly, this isn’t overwhelmingly surprising, as this administration does all it can to maintain its image. Total COVID-19 cases are scary! But juxtaposing the campus’s lower positivity rate with the county’s higher one is misleading; when you compare the stats on a campus that has had mandatory testing to those of a larger jurisdiction where people often only get tested when symptomatic, the university will look like it’s doing an amazing job. 

Because of the university’s lack of transparency, you have to go to another source or add the data up yourself to get the total number of cases at the university: As of Oct. 11, the university had reported 993 positive cases — 960 for students and 33 for staff and faculty members — despite a positivity rate still hovering around 1 percent. Let’s put those 993 positive cases in perspective through a metric this university’s administration will understand: rates.

According to the school’s dashboard, campus density currently sits at 38 percent. Campus density is calculated based on wireless device statistics, but to give a conservative estimate, let’s assume that all 41,000 students and 14,000 faculty and staff are included in the normal population. That would leave about 20,900 on campus right now. If we divide the 993 cumulative cases since mid-August by this total, we can estimate that about 4.8 percent of the campus population has contracted COVID-19 at some point over the past two months — assuming no one has been reinfected. 

And yet, despite this rising and terrifying figure, we still (remarkably) have in-person classes. Right now, there is no evidence to suggest that in-person classes are driving an acceleration of the outbreak, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous to continue having students meet in person while total cases continue to rise. And the misuse of positivity rates is not a victimless practice; for one, the university has irresponsibly used this statistic to defend their decision to hold in-person classes.

Despite calls to “stay home if symptomatic,” COVID-19 takes between two and 14 days to show symptoms, so students can pass on the virus before they know they’re sick. And they are getting sick and infecting others. Continuing in-person classes while infections on this campus continue will always increase the risk of students and instructors getting infected; no matter the precautions taken, more cases necessarily means more chances to get sick.

I’ve already written about the dangers COVID-19 poses to vulnerable faculty and staff as well as the general population, so I won’t go further into that here. Put simply, this administration’s decision to obscure the COVID-19 numbers and continue in-person classes is dangerous.

This isn’t a theoretical issue. We know students are sick. We know staff and faculty are sick.  We know the situation is going to get worse before it’ll get better. It’s time the administration steps up, stops clinging to positivity rates and ends in-person classes — hopefully before the dashboard is forced to report on-campus deaths by university negligence.

Jake Foley-Keene is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at jakefoleykeene@gmail.com. 

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