Covid-19 confusion: students, faculty and staff reflect on changing guidelines

DePaul’s uneven policymaking by the university has left students, faculty and staff confused over the direction and logic of the university’s response to the pandemic.

In mid-December 2021, DePaul required that all in-person classes be held online for two weeks, and when those two weeks were over, with U.S. and Cook County Covid-19 case counts remaining very high, students and staff were sent back to the classroom. DePaul didn’t require booster shots for students to return to campus, setting a mandate instead for March 1. And just recently, DePaul has not provided reasonable accommodations for high-risk students to take their classes online.

Some students believe the university switched back to  in-person classes too early.

“I don’t think two weeks online were enough, I was pretty nervous returning to campus,” said Aya Alshubbac, a sophomore studying history. “I wish we were online longer to make sure everyone can be safe.”

Other students point to uneven enforcement of Covid-19 safety protocols on campus, particularly in student housing. Residents of DePaul housing must wear a face mask at all times indoors, except for in their rooms or apartments.

“You have to wear your mask everywhere that isn’t your room, but it is not very strongly enforced,” said Zach Liss, a sophomore studying screenwriting.

Students living in the dorms feel as though the rules may be geared towards encouraging better health practices, but these rules aren’t enforced enough to have an effect.

“The rules are enforced in the dorms, but there isn’t much more than someone telling us to put our masks on,” said Izzy Kryzzka, a freshman and a creative writing major.

Colby Walzer, a sophomore studying film and television, believes the university needed to provide more advance notice of vaccination requirements, particularly DePaul’s demand for evidence of booster shots.

“I think DePaul is trying to keep us in a safe environment, but also… if they made [the booster] decision ahead of time, I feel like I would be receiving it better,” Walzer said.

‘I don’t think there’s any real way to please everybody’

According to the university, masks, vaccination records and a Covid-19 booster by March 1 are required to attend classes in-person. Cloth masks alone are no longer permitted. N95 masks are  “highly recommended” but a cloth mask over a surgical mask can be substituted if such masks are unattainable.

In most campus buildings, dispensers near the entrances contain KN95 masks available for students, faculty and staff. In the first two weeks of the quarter, these mask dispensers were often empty, and the highly recommended masks were scarce. However, as the quarter has moved along, the mask dispensers have been better stocked. Vaccinations are required for nearly all students and staff, and the booster requirement will take effect on March 1.

DePaul sends out update emails to students and staff whenever a change occurs and maintains an update page with all the latest information.

Some changes to DePaul’s policy  came only after pressure from the student body. DePaul’s Student Government Association (SGA) passed a resolution calling on the university to enact a booster mandate on Jan. 4.

The resolution noted that other Chicago schools had already required the booster. According to the SGA resolution: “Whereas other Chicago-area Universities… have already mandated booster shots for their students… The DePaul Student Government Association calls on DePaul University to implement a mandatory booster shot for all members of the DePaul community.”

Kyle Drexler, an acting major at Columbia College Chicago, said that the school acted quickly to mandate Covid-19 vaccines.

“Columbia has taken it very, very seriously,” Drexler said. “They required [the booster] to come back to campus this semester. You literally could not come back unless you either had the booster or could show proof you weren’t eligible to get it yet.”

Loyola University Chicago is another school that was quick to require a booster shot for students and faculty. According to Block Club Chicago, Loyola announced a booster requirement on Dec. 15.

“In an effort to further protect the health and safety of our community—particularly as we navigate the impact of the highly transmissive omicron variant—Loyola will now require students, faculty, and staff to receive a booster shot of a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are eligible, a statement released by Loyola reads. “All students, faculty, and staff are now required to receive a booster shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and upload proof to Loyola Health by Monday, February 21.”

Tate Maurer, a junior at Loyola, said students are divided on how far to go with regulations.

“I don’t think there’s any real way to please everybody,” Maurer said. “A lot of people want the restrictions rolled back and a lot of people want them in place. I think they’re doing a good job of making it safe. The booster mandate rubbed a few people the wrong way, but overall, it’s the right thing to do.”

Following the SGA resolution, DePaul sent an email to the student body officially announcing a booster requirement on Jan. 13, near the end of the two-week online period at the start of winter quarter.

“In the spirit of caring for each other and for our surrounding community, DePaul is requiring vaccinations for COVID-19, including the booster. This requirement applies to students, faculty and staff,” said the statement on the DePaul Covid-19 Updates and Guidance page. “Everyone in the community will be required to provide proof of a booster by Tuesday, March 1.”

Students will need to provide proof that they received the booster shot before registering for in-person spring quarter classes. According to the DePaul Dashboard, failure to provide evidence of the booster will make students unable “to register for spring term in-person courses, until they have complied with this requirement.”

‘I mean, it can’t be right’

Now that DePaul has joined the ranks of other Chicago area schools in mandating Covid-19 booster vaccines, some faculty appreciate the new requirement, but remain concerned over the March deadline.

“Even against omicron, the booster, you have 20 times more neutralizing antibodies compared to two shots,” said Sarah Connolly, associate professor in the College of Science and Health. “I’m glad DePaul is requiring the booster; kinda wish they required it earlier instead of March 1.”

Often, changing mask and quarantine policies lead to confusion about the best way to stay safe. According to a CDC statement released Dec. 27, guidance for isolation and masking procedures changed with new information regarding the now-dominant omicron Covid-19 variant.

“The CDC guidelines are five days of isolation followed by five days of diligent masking, with a well-fitted mask, not taking that mask off in front of anyone,” Connolly said. “I think that that additional five days of masking sometimes gets lost.”

The change in quarantine procedure stemmed from CDC evidence that showed the window for becoming contagious, developing symptoms and recovering from the infection has shrunk, largely due to being vaccinated.

The omicron variant “showed after seven days [after exposure to the virus] there’s virtually no risk of transmission at this point. And in that five-to-seven-day window, there’s some depending on whether people have been vaccinated, but the risk…is very low,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said in an interview with NBC5 Chicago.

While the science of the variants continues to develop, critics of the sudden change in policy argue that the shrinking quarantine period has less to do with science than getting essential workers back at work to keep supply chains, stores and our economic engines moving.

“[The change in CDC policies] reflects rather the pressing needs of our society at large,” Connolly said. “I’m a little concerned about the reduction of isolation time to five days, but I understand the logic behind it.”

When essential workers and staff are out of the job for two weeks or more at a time due to strict Covid-19 guidelines, it costs for the rest of the supply chain. At DePaul, the logic appears similar. With ever-changing information to build effective policy, DePaul has to weigh the pros and cons of their measures.

“As far as the university making the call to come back in person, without metrics that tell us what is safe, I think they’re doing the best they can,” Connolly said.

Nonetheless, critics argue that genuine flaws in the Covid-19 positivity cases on campus hindered effective communication to the students and staff at DePaul about the severity of the recent outbreak.

According to DePaul’s Covid-19 Dashboard, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4, 30 cases were reported. To put that in perspective, Cook County’s Covid-19 case numbers ranged from 4,528 on Jan. 28 to 2,085 on Feb. 4. DePaul requests students and faculty report positive Covid-19 tests, but there is no way of knowing how many comply.

Some faculty members questioned the accuracy of the university’s data.

“I mean, it can’t be right,” said Jay Baglia, an associate professor in the College of Communication. “I think… it’s just one of those things where, when something like that flies in the face of what we are experiencing and seeing and hearing, it seems that that’s an opportunity for the administration to offer a correction or a reminder or some encouragement.”

For Baglia, the responsibility for more accurate reporting of Covid-19 data is not the administration’s alone; students and the university need to work together to provide information for better assessments of the state of the pandemic on DePaul’s campus.

Stigma surrounding  contracting Covid-19 this far into the pandemic may be a part of the problem, Baglia said.

“It’s almost like shame. Like, ‘I made it this far. I did so well and I still got it. I’m so disappointed with myself.’ I think that’s a human response,” Baglia said. “I think it suggests that’s also an opportunity to communicate: ‘We understand that testing positive for Covid two years into the pandemic is probably really disappointing and disheartening. Nonetheless, we still need you to report it so that we can have a better grasp of what’s happening in our community.’”

For Baglia, the return to the classroom after two weeks online felt like a top-down decision that didn’t necessarily serve the best interests of the university as a whole. While administrators mandated a return to online learning for the first two weeks of winter quarter, professors had to follow through, despite reservations.

“When they made that announcement, I said [it] seems to be premature,” Baglia said. “There was quite a bit of disappointment… That decision seemed incredibly irresponsible given the rate of infection and that if we were at the peak, we had just barely made it over the peak.”

During DePaul Health committee meetings, Baglia saw hypocrisy in how university leaders conducted their meetings from home.

“I just couldn’t help but notice that most of the administrators that I was in committee meetings with were at home,” Baglia said. “I mean, a similar risk was not undertaken by a good number of people who made the decision to put us back in the classroom. That’s unfortunate.”

Despite the confusion among policies, DePaul reports that the overwhelming majority of students and faculty are in favor of the vaccination requirement. Over 90 percent of DePaul students, faculty and staff had received or were planning on receiving a Covid-19 vaccination, according to a survey sent out by the university in March 2021.

‘Not too much of a hassle’ 

Although DePaul “highly recommends using medical grade masks such as KN95 or N95 masks,” there are three ways to opt out of the vaccination requirement. Students can apply for a medical, religious or age exemption. According to Michael Wright, the assistant vice president of the Office of the University Registrar, there have been 528 exemptions distributed to students for medical or religious reasons. Wright says all other students enrolled in an in-person or flex class, “are vaccinated in compliance with the original vaccine requirement.”

Students who receive exemptions and are on campus are required to be tested once a week if attending in-person classes. If this requirement is not met, the exemption may be revoked, and further action such as removal from in-person classes with no tuition refund may be taken. Faculty members face potential termination if they do not comply with these regulations.

Some students say the religious belief exemption is an easily navigated loophole in the DePaul vaccine mandate.

DePaul sophomore Marcello Maussimo Mauro chose to remain unvaccinated.

“This vaccine was rushed,” Mauro said. “It normally takes 8-10 years for a vaccination to go to market; animal testing was skipped. And with the several booster shots that have been rolled out, and the whole recall with Moderna’s vaccine, I’m even more skeptical.”

When asked about the process of obtaining an exemption, Mauro described it as “not too much of a hassle,” using the Bible verse “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” quoted in Corinthians as his religious reasoning.

Students who received a religious or medical exemption are able to attend in-person classes. According to DePaul policy, in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, faculty and staff are not allowed to ask the vaccination status of students.

Some students expressed concern about being in classes with unvaccinated people without their knowledge.

“I feel like we should be notified. If anybody is going to almost go outside of the realm of health, I kind of would want to know,” Walzer said. “Maybe not who, maybe that’s a breach of privacy, but I would definitely want to know if somebody in my class had [an exemption].”

‘I think we’re going to have a real summer’ 

Despite the confusion and concern among faculty and staff, Connolly and Baglia maintain their optimism for the rest of the year. Last June, cases began to decline, and people saw hope for an end to the harshness experienced during the pandemic.

According to the New York Times Covid-19 map and case count, there were an average of 73 cases per day in late-June, a trend correlating with increased vaccination rates.

Several scientific articles support the claim that warmer weather creates more opportunities for social distancing and other practices that mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

“I’ve been wrong about predictions before, but I have hopes the rest of the school year will be getting better and better,” Connolly said. “Omicron will have infected a lot of people and that will give them some temporary immunity. That additional infection should boost immunity.”

Baglia hopes the pandemic will continue to retreat as the temperature rises.

“I’m super optimistic,” Baglia said. “I’ve always been an optimist, and I think we’re going to have a real summer.”

However, his optimism is mediated by potentially permanent changes to social practices.

“I think life will change,” Baglia said. “We’ll see people on trains and planes with masks at a disproportionate rate than we ever saw in the past. Being near people still is, um, is something we’ll have to ease back into. Hugging! I don’t know that we’re going to resort back to that.”