Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Dear Professor / Dear Parent

I received an email yesterday from a concerned parent who had read my Open Letter to UA’s Chancellor, Board of Trustees, and President that I published on September 3rd.  This email stood out for its thoughtful and polite disagreement among the usually hateful responses by those who disagree with my speaking out. I’d like to share it not only because these are the thoughts of many parents and alumni, but it shows that those of us opposed to how UA is handling this crisis need to ensure parents understand why we are holding UA’s administration responsible for the debacle that is the current semester.
 
PLEASE read all three emails exchanged below.
 
(Out of respect for the writer, I’m omitting any personally identifiable information.)
 
To: Michael Innis-Jimenez
September 14, 2020
 
I write to you today as a concerned alumni and parent of [student(s)] attending my beloved University. The letter you composed and sent the Board of Trustees, President Bell, and many others has made its way to our parent websites and I want to tell you how terribly disappointed we are in your words. Rather than collaborating with your peers and the bright minds that work at the university [to] find a solution to educate these students that parents have entrusted you with their care,  your solution is [to] run and hide from a virus that the evidence shows is declining in Tuscaloosa.
 
On the same parent pages that your letter was posted, an article published in the Chicago Tribune by a professor from Notre Dame was shared. How I wished this article by Patrick Griffin had been written by a professor at Alabama! I have attached that article and I hope you will take a minute to read and perhaps you will understand why I wanted this article to written by you.
 
Please, I beg you, don’t let your students down and don’t let this incredible university down, remember we are The Capstone!

 
My response:
To: Parent
September 14, 2020

 
Thank you for your note. I respect your point and hope we can find the best solution for the health of everyone involved that will not hurt their education. Sadly, whether the students are on-campus or off, face-to-face or online, this virus has negatively affected student’s ability to enjoy and fully immerse themselves in the “Capstone” experience. I pray a vaccine is developed soon so that we can go back to normal operations in and out of the classroom. I can’t wait until everything goes back to normal.
 
The overall point of my letter was about not only the health of the now 2,000 plus students who are infected while in Tuscaloosa, but about the more vulnerable populations. These are primarily the 5,000 plus faculty and staff who are potentially being exposed to the virus without proper protection and protocols. We also worry about Tuscaloosans in general, as over 80 percent of students live off-campus. I hope you understand most of the faculty have the best interest of students in mind. My letter to the President, Chancellor, and Board of Trustees focused on the fact that they have been making most of the decisions behind closed doors and without talking to anyone who is in the classroom buildings and dorms with the students day in and day out. This is a public institution and they are making all decisions in secret.  Part of what has made UA what it is, and higher education in general, has been this shared governance between faculty and the administration. You’ll find all the best universities with the best faculty have this balance. 
 
My biggest concern now that numbers seem to be going down, is that UA prepare itself for the scheduled end of on-campus classes on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Unless UA spends the money and time to test every student before they go home for Thanksgiving, If they don’t make sure students who test positive at that point quarantine on campus or at home, we can only imagine the type of super-spreader event UA will be responsible for once everyone is back home for Thanksgiving. In addition, students will not show immediate symptoms, but studies are already showing that a full 30% of college-age students with no or mild symptoms end up with chronic myocarditis  [This claim was later retracted by the doctor who made the claim]
 
I hope you and other parents consider asking the university to ensure everyone is tested before we scatter for the holidays.
 
Again, I do thank you for your thoughtful note. I will read the article you attached tonight.
 

The parent responded this morning:
To: Michael Innis-Jimenez
September 15, 2020
 
Thank you for your kind reply. I have to admit I was surprised and honestly very impressed that you took the time to response to an email that wasn’t the most kind email you have received I’m sure!
 
Although we may disagree on certain aspects of how to manage students, faculty and community regarding Covid, I am glad to we agree that students education is a top priority.  [….]
 
I was saddened to hear that the administration is not transparent with the faculty there at Alabama, we as parents feel the same way too. I think an open dialogue between faculty, staff, students, and parents is critical at this time. To be quite honest with you, I’m not really surprised to hear you say that. Us parents feel like we have been left in the dark numerous times and when we push for information, we either get no reply or are reminded that our children are over 18 and they need to handle these matter themselves. However, these [students] don’t have any idea how to handle this complex world of Covid, heck … adults are still trying to figure it out!
 
I hope the University will insist that every student have a negative test before they return in January, just like they did in August. However, they need to make sure that they don’t allow those who don’t have proof of a negative test back on campus! The numbers are looking good, hospitalizations at DCH are lower now than they were when [students started returning to campus] and most of you incredible professors are working your tails off to give this next generation of bright minds the education their deserve.
 
I would be remiss if I didn’t apologize to you for assuming you were not thinking about educating your students and only thinking about yourself. I am happy that I sent my first email so that I got to learn more about you.

 -----

 
I am happy I responded to this parent’s email. Through this exchange—or better yet open communication—we both learned important lessons. I learned that parents and alumni are not getting any useful news from the UA and are taking to heart reports that those of us who are questioning UA’s current way of operating are disloyal, anti-education people who just want to “shut it down” at any expense. The letter writer seemed to identify me as a caring professor who wanted to educate in as safe of an environment as possible who is at least as frustrated as they are with the administration’s handling of this event.
 
The clearest solution to begin to heal this divide in perception is communication. Despite the fact that the UA and those at the system office spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for an “Office of Strategic Communication (StratCom)” led by someone with the rank of University Vice President, the Chancellor, the President, and the Board of Trustees have decided to abstain from any open communication. But that, I’m sure, is their point.
 
I will write more about communication later. I—like many of us—need to spend a good amount of our day on our passion—teaching.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Desensitizing Us From the Ugly Truth

 A local UA pandemic news story caught my eye. It deals with large numbers, numbers we aren't used to seeing when it comes to students. The title of the article written by Michael Cassagrande, "University of Alabama COVID-19 positives dropping, dean ‘cautiously optimistic,’" gives one a sense of, well, optimism. Dr. Ricky Friend, dean of the UA College of Community Health Science, has become the medical "face" of UA's and the UA System's response to the pandemic. 


Dr. Friend is correct in saying that the numbers going down is a positive thing. But to say that things are going well or nothing is wrong with the plan is disingenuous at best. By throwing out sky-high numbers to start, they are attempting to desensitize us from the ugly truth. Sure, 858 infected students, faculty, and staff in one week sounds pretty good after the previous week's total was 1,052. This means that at least 1,889 UA students and 21 faculty and staff have been infected by this virus within the last two weeks. That is almost 8 times what it took the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill to go online. 5% of the UA student body have become infected since coming to Tuscaloosa. Those are not good numbers and we don't, at this point, know what the long-term effects will be for those who had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic. In the interview, Friend noticed that the number of students with new infections was down to an average of 125 a day from 164 new infections in students the week before. 


The fact that the University of Alabama remained open after averaging 164 newly infected students every day in the first week of classes is negligent. The fact that UA is now saying we should stay the course because we are only averaging 125 newly infected students in the second week has a very high potential to cause unnecessary deaths of students, their parents, or elders because 2,000 infected students isn't enough. Faculty and staff are watching what the university is doing and taking notes, something the Chancellor and the President are ignoring in order to keep the school open. They have refused to have an truly open forum where students, parents, faculty and staff can have their questions answered truthfully and directly. The University and System leadership have refused to answer to the students and employees at the University of Alabama, people they seem to consider expendable, and have refused to answer to the taxpayers of the state of Alabama. They have refused to give the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) timely and accurate numbers of positive tests. They also strongly encourage students, faculty, and staff to take Covid-19 tests on-campus. Could this be because that gives them control of the numbers?


The last reported 7-day total of newly infected UA students is greater than the last 7-day totals for the entire states of Wisconsin, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, New York Iowa Arizona, Washington, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kansas, Arkansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Utah, South Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Oregon, Hawaii, Connecticut, New Mexico, Montana, Rhode Island, Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, and the State of Alabama. That's right UA has more than the State of Alabama because the University of Alabama is NOT properly reporting these positives to the Alabama Department of Public Health as required to do. If UA was a state, the last seven days of available data would make UA the state with the 15th highest total. Take a second to absorb that. The University of Alabama's 7-day total puts UA with more new infections than 35 other American states. 35! 


Brushing off the virus in college-age students because they tend to show mild to no symptoms is derelict and thoughtless. According to the Mayo Clinic, tests show that people who have recovered from COVID-19 have shown lasting damage to the heart muscle, even in people who experienced only mild symptoms." Okay, we don't know the age of those test subjects. But we do know, according to the director of athletic medicine at Penn State, that one-third of ”Big Ten athletes who contracted COVID-19 have shown symptoms of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.” This is one-third of elite athletes. If the average holds, at least 630 Alabama students may have myocarditis. The key is that we don't know what the long-term effects are. 


Why are we still face-to-face? Why haven't members of the UA Board of Trustees demanded that UA go all online for the semester and figure out how they are going to keep this from happening again in January? Why haven't the state leaders stepped up? The Governor, the Secretary of State, the Health Commissioner, and just about every member of the Alabama state legislature has been MIA. Why? Some will speculate that the Chancellor and President are focused on the money. Others will speculate that keeping the University open and in the black is worth 15, 20, 30, 50, or 100 lives spread out among faculty, staff, and family members. They speculate it might be called a "minimal" loss of life that leaves everyone "cautiously optimistic" that the death rate will slowly curve downwards. Let’s ask Chancellor St. John and President Bell to explain why 2,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 new student infections is acceptable in order to keep the money coming in.  How many infected students will it take? How many dead Tuscaloosans will it take? Please tell us how many students with long-term heart damage are worth the money to be made? How many faculty and staff with COVID-related chronic lung and heart problems is acceptable to the Board of Trustees, the Chancellor, and the President? Please don't flippantly or nonchalantly ignore our questions, give us no answers, and care about UA’s public image more than the lives of those who call UA home and who are UA.


Friday, September 4, 2020

To Stay or To Go

 "Dr. Richard Friend, dean of UA’s College of Community Health Sciences, spoke with members of the media via Zoom on Wednesday, saying "Nothing has gone wrong" with the UA approach as far as testing, sanitation and distancing measures in campus buildings, and preparations for quarantine and isolation space."*
 
 
The level of hypocrisy and lying (can you have both at the same time?) is unbelievable. This is coming from a leading MD and supported by President Bell and Chancellor St. John. As late as the day before Chancellor St John published a press release saying everyone should stay here, President Bell invited COVID-19 POSITIVE students to go home if they preferred that over the isolation dorms. One week before this press release, these same folks in interviews and press releases boasted about the fact that they had plenty of isolation space because most of the over 1,000 students who had tested positive decided to go home. They BOASTED about these students traveling throughout the United States while being confirmed as COVID positive. These are the same people who want us to believe it is their duty to stay open to keep providing face-to-face classes in order to keep people in town (these two are not mutually exclusive). Since faculty are now required to record any face-to-face class for any student absent because they have or fear getting COVID-19, students can choose to move their face-to-face class online at any time. This is a good thing. Faculty and graduate instructors are strictly forbidden by the Provost to maintain the same mode of delivery as listed in July.  Let's please not forget about the staff who are required to clean and disinfect these rooms and bathrooms without PPE that can protect them from catching the virus.
 
I agree with the doctors on the latest press release. Shutting down and sending people home EN MASSE is a horrible idea. I’m glad President Bell and Chancellor St. John finally figured out what most of us have known definitively since March: Don’t travel while infected. If you must travel, isolate for 2 weeks once you get to your destination.   Lets ask the doctors if it is better to begin a controlled, staggered return home after testing people than just keeping everyone here so that they can continue to follow the plan that Dr. Friend claims is going the way it should be going. Several good plans on how to send people home are out there, including the one I mention in my open letter.
 
 
Please follow the link for the article quoted at the start of my entry and click further down to take a look at the paper trail.
 
*
https://www.al.com/news/2020/09/alabama-dean-ua-handled-covid-cases-well-impact-of-changes-will-take-weeks.html
 
 
UA System Press Release August 28, 2020
https://drive.google.com/file/d/17LStTslE2t0gWzimjYMdFfoeswiBpsmf/view?usp=sharing
 
UA Faculty and Staff Newsletter, September 1, 2020
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1s55I4fAXC52Hgt5H25A8HLJ5R0WsnRBQ/view?usp=sharing
 
 
 
 
 
UA System Press Release September 2, 2020
 
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ZY2qSAlzFPeha7Ra6Pdmxq0qR8Xqxq48/view?usp=sharing
 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

An Open Letter to UA System and Tuscaloosa Campus Leadership and Their Advisors

Dear Chancellor St. John, Members of the UA Board of Trustees, President Bell, Dr. Friend, UA System Health and Safety Task Force, Dean Selwyn Vickers, and Dr. Mike Saag:

 

After reading the UA System Press Release of September 2, 2020, posted on the UA System COVID -19 Dashboard, I learned that UA administrators, with the explicit endorsement of the Health and Safety Task Force and the implied support of Drs. Vickers and Saag, have decided that the best thing to do at this point is to keep students and faculty on campus despite the high-community-spread level and danger for anyone in Tuscaloosa. This shows that those of you addressed above are negligent, irresponsible, and unethical. It shows your lack of genuine concern for the wellbeing of UA students, employees, their families, the residents of Alabama, and those of every student home community throughout the United States.

 

As late as last Friday, Dr. Friend and UA administrators boasted about the fact that the vast majority of students who tested positive went home, allowing for more isolation capacity on campus despite the over 1,000 positive cases. He did not point out, though that it is UA policy for off-campus, COVID-positive students to fend for themselves and isolate off-campus. Emails to the UA campus community by senior leadership encouraged anyone who was uncomfortable in Tuscaloosa to go home and learn all-online at the same time that faculty were told they could not choose to move their courses online. The media and concerned faculty pointed out the fact that already allowing over 700 students infected with COVID-19 was irresponsible and negligent on their part. Instead of pivoting to a workable solution in the best health and safety of those in harm’s way, you have “doubled-down,” suddenly learning of the “new” research that traveling while positive or suspected to be positive with COVID-19 is a bad idea. That is how the press release reads, and it leads me to believe that you are either not telling the truth and willfully deceiving everyone concerned OR are so behind the science and national health “best practices” on traveling while infected or possibly infected that you ALL should resign in the best interest of those you were hired or appointed to serve. I remind you that in your current positions, your primary responsibility is to the HEALTH and SAFETY of students, employees, and the tax-paying public.

 

In order to protect the health of all involved and in the best interest of the community, I request that you do the following immediately:

 

1. Move all instruction online.

 

2. Test ALL students for COVID-19 at university expense.

 

3. Start a staggered move-out (over 3 weeks) of all students who test negative. Recommend that they isolate at home for two weeks and notify the receiving state's department of health that they are traveling from a known hot-spot.

 

4. Isolate ALL students who test positive (regardless of if they live on or off campus) in university isolation space at university expense. This includes meals and basic living accessories including furniture, microwave oven, and legitimate isolation from other students and non-

medical employees. Students should stay in isolation until a doctor deems they are no longer infectious.

 

5. If COVID-19 positive students refuse to remain in isolation and/or their parents pick them up, assist them in packing in a way that minimizes the danger to others and immediately notify the receiving state’s department that the COVID positive and possibly infectious student is returning home.

 

Please take these steps immediately in order to protect the health of all of us in Tuscaloosa and home communities.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

Professor Michael Innis-Jimenez

 

 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

From positive, to false positive, to silenced

Guest Post By Matthew Wielicki


July 27th was going to be a normal day for our family.  BBQ and playtime outside with the kids and a close trusted family.  We keep our distance but think it's important to have some social interaction with trusted friends even during this pandemic.  And that's exactly how it started out as I returned from my mandatory COVID entry testing that was done at approximately 11:30 am (although my scheduled testing was 10:30 am).  As I pulled into my driveway I received the call that I was expecting...  Dr. Wielicki your test results were negative.  Wow, I thought to myself, that result came in before I drove home, usually about a 16min commute.  I guess these tests really are rapid.  We started to prep some burgers and hot dogs and started to get the coals going when the second call came in.  This was approximately 25 mins after my first call and the news was very different.  The nurse on the phone stated that my test was positive... but that can't be, I had already been called about my negative result.  After two more phone calls, she confirmed to me that my original call was a clerical mistake and that my result was not ready during that first call and that I am in fact positive.  I was shocked, scared, confused, and full of questions.  I felt no symptoms and was prepping food for my family and friends.  Needless to say, the BBQ was off and I started to isolate myself in our trailer parked in our driveway, waving at my 3 and 5-year-old sons through the window.  I called the COVID hotline 3-5 times daily and left 3-5 messages each day to get some answers...  I have to this date never received a call back from the COVID hotline.  Was I an unusual case?  How many were testing positive that were asymptomatic? This is valuable data for a small community like Tuscaloosa, AL particularly when the university was planning on testing over 30k people returning to the city.  I started writing an open letter to UA:

An open letter to The University of Alabama:

My name is Matthew Wielicki and I am currently a faculty member at UA that tested positive for COVID-19, on 7/27, as part of The University of Alabama requirement for returning to campus. I was informed by the staff that the university has been testing close to 1000 people each day for the past two weeks, starting the week prior to my positive test. These people show no symptoms, I am asymptomatic however I have incredible guilt that I may have unknowingly infected others in my community, and are required to test. This information is vital for our understanding of the percentage of asymptomatic carriers in our community and should not be simply mixed into the statewide statistics. If we are truly in this together then we must do what's right to protect our students, faculty, and staff as well as our community at large and report these results separately in order to further our understanding of the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 as soon as possible. Thank you for your time and ROLL TIDE!!!

Sincerely,
Dr. Matthew Wielicki


An upper administrator did call me directly, which was a nice gesture 5 days later, and asked if I would be willing to test again to confirm my positive result as well as reassured that data from testing was to be released that week.  I agreed, I had been advocating for a retest since my first test, but that was on a Friday afternoon and after driving to the staff and faculty clinic I was told that testing was done for the day.  The following Monday, 08/03/20, I received two negative tests and a negative antibody test.  I was never contacted again about my results by any administrators or the COVID hotline and believe that I was a false positive.  Again, I was confused and had even more questions.  How accurate are the tests?  How many false positives are there?  Where is the data?  As faculty members, we know that when conducting any sort of experiment or research plan we need a plan for data management and distribution of that data to the public.  You can not get a federally funded grant without this information.  Yet, it appeared as though the university response team, comprised of researchers that have earned millions in federal grants, overlooked this detail when planning their robust plan for re-entry. Finally, on 08/18/20 the UA COVID Dashboard was released to provide the community with some info about testing results that had started nearly a month prior.  Nowhere to be found were asymptomatic cases or false positives, although I was told by the administration that this data does exist and is important.  

I started to feel better that the data was being released, although not all of the relevant data that could help people understand the spread of the virus and the validity of testing.  And then the gag guidance from the provost came down on 08/25.  I instantly wrote back to the assistant to the provost that sent the email to ask if I could share the email and was given permission.  I mentioned that I would be forwarding this guidance to my ~110 person class and that I would like the provost to call me.  To my surprise about 5 mins later I was on the phone with the provost explaining that my obligation will be to the students and not to the administration as the legal interpretation they were using was not only incorrect but in my eyes could even be criminal.  I would have no part in it.  He understood my position and to this day I inform my students while never naming names if they have been in class with someone that has tested positive.  The others in my department have not had the privilege to speak with the provost and are very unsure whether to follow me or the original guidance from UA. The remarkable response and gratitude from my students that I will do everything in my power to protect their identity while also providing them the necessary information so that they can make informed decisions on attending in-person class have strengthened my resolve.  My student's safety is more important than my job.  I encourage and plead with all UA faculty to not follow this original guidance and stand up to the administration so that we can keep our community informed and safe.  We are learning how to deal with this ever-changing pandemic landscape and above all, we must stay transparent or risk losing the trust of our students and their parents as well as the community al large.  

WaPo on HIPAA and FERPA and UA

YES, YES, YES, and yes. But UA administrators already know this, they were just hoping faculty and students wouldn't figure out the truth. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. If they didn't already know this, then they are listening to the wrong legal advisors. “If you’re knowingly and frivolously misusing privacy law to conceal information then you should pay consequences for that.”
 
https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/09/02/college-coronavirus-privacy-laws/

Dear Professor / Dear Parent

I received an email yesterday from a concerned parent who had read my Open Letter to UA’s Chancellor, Board of Trustees, and President that...