Boston University won’t notify professors if a student in their class tested positive for the coronavirus, and faculty and students are not happy about it

A Boston University student walking past a sign on the Warren Towers dorms in Boston on August 18 with instructions for what to do when someone in your household has COVID-19. Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Summary List Placement

  • Boston University faculty and students are at odds with the school’s administration over its response to the coronavirus.
  • BU’s provost, Jean Morrison, announced that professors would not be notified if students tested positive for the coronavirus, citing “strict privacy of everyone’s test status.”
  • Nathan Phillips, a professor of earth and environment at BU, condemned the privacy policy. “I don’t think it’s about privacy – I think it’s about secrecy,” Phillips told Insider.
  • Tensions are high as in-person classes are set to start Wednesday.
  • Sign up for our new parenting newsletter, Insider Parenting, here.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Boston University is facing criticism after announcing that it won’t notify professors if a student in their class tests positive for the coronavirus, citing “strict privacy of everyone’s test status.”

Many faculty members and students are not happy with that announcement or other policies the school has taken to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. In-person classes are set to start Wednesday.

“The efficacy of contact tracing is entirely dependent on the accuracy of the data shared by the individual who has tested positive,” the university’s provost, Jean Morrison, wrote.

“If students do not feel their privacy is protected, they may be less likely to fully and honestly participate in contact tracing, putting us all at higher risk,” she continued, adding: “I know this decision will be a disappointment to some of you, but I hope that you understand that we have made this decision with the ultimate goal of keeping all faculty, staff, and students as safe as possible.”

Judy Platt, the university’s director of Student Health Services, echoed Morrison’s sentiment on protecting students’ privacy.

“We’ve always held the line that unless there is an immediate threat to someone’s safety, we are not going to disclose health-related information,” Platt told BU Today. “To do something differently for this, when we’ve always had a standard practice of confidentiality and privacy guarantees, I think would significantly undermine the efforts of contact tracing.”

The university instituted its own testing and contact-tracing infrastructure and set up a community dashboard to track on-campus cases. It will disclose positive tests to the public-health authority, BU Today reported.

But some faculty and students are worried the administration’s coronavirus response could end up forcing classes online or result in more infections.

Boston university

Faculty and students are scared

In the comment section of the BU Today article, nearly two dozen commenters – including ones describing themselves as students, faculty, and concerned parents – slammed the privacy policy and accused the university of weakening an effective approach to contact tracing of cases on campus by implementing it.

Daniel Star, an associate professor of philosophy at the university, wrote a blog post describing the university’s approach to testing and contact tracing as “arguably a misleading and negligent policy statement.”

“This policy choice is also negligent, because it attempts to prevent instructors from taking a course of action that is now widely recognised to be morally required by appropriately evolving public health standards,” Star wrote on the community blog With All Due Caution, which it says compiles “commentary about university affairs.”

Nathan Phillips, a professor of earth and environment at the university, condemned the policy, describing the university’s justification behind it as “disingenuous.”

“I don’t think it’s about privacy – I think it’s about secrecy,” Phillips told Insider, adding: “The right thing to do, the moral thing to do, the scientific thing to reduce risk would be to go remote for a couple of weeks in the event that there was knowledge that there was a positive case that was in the class.”

He added that such knowledge would “essentially be like the collapse of a house of cards,” as the campus would “quickly drive to an all-remote situation in that event.”

A rising senior in engineering, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, acknowledged the privacy risks but said “the greater risk is potentially having a super-spreader event on campus.”

“That may end up shifting a significant number of classes online and possibly even cancelling part of the semester,” the student told Insider.

“It’s not that difficult to just tell people, ‘Hey, you came in contact with someone,'” the student said.

Phillips said he had taken it upon himself to conduct his fall courses with the risk of coronavirus in mind – hosting outdoor courses that would be livestreamed to remote students.

The university has implemented policies meant to limit the spread of the virus, including campus-wide testing efforts for students and faculty and barring students from attending gatherings of more than 25 people on and off campus.

‘It was wrong for us to be excluded from this, because we’re in the classrooms too’

But Phillips said the university had not been hearing pleas from faculty and staff members to do more to protect them and their students.

“The administration and the way they have set this situation up has just excluded so many of the instructional staff from being a part” of the discussion, he told Insider. “Community and collective decision making has not been exercised here. We’ve been left out.”

Representatives from Boston University did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The engineering student said students at the university had also been left out of the conversation.

“I feel like sometimes when these policies happen, students are a little bit excluded from … the discourse, which is kind of defeating the point, because a lot of the BU efforts in reopening happens to be very undergraduate-centric,” the student told Insider, adding: “I think that it was wrong for us to be excluded from this, because we’re in the classrooms too.”

Phillips accused the university board of taking an “individualized” approach to a “community-health problem in too many ways.”

“They made a decision early on to make decisions in a top-down manner,” he said, adding: “If they would have engaged in a community decision-making process, I think we would have solved everything.”