The Illinois State University Board of Trustees held a working session meeting at 1 p.m. Saturday over Zoom providing an update on fall semester. The main area of concern was the university’s response and actions toward COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.
Public comments from ISU students and professors started the meeting. The overall concern the speakers discussed was the lack of communication and handling of COVID-19 as the university reopened and invited students back to the Bloomington-Normal community.
Brian Rejack, associate professor in the department of English pointed out that ISU lacks in responding to outbreaks. Rejack mentioned that at universities such as Bradley or University of Illinois implemented some type of lockdown measures to help contain the virus and that ISU needs to do more to contain the spread of the virus on campus.
Rejack focused on two issues when it came to ISU’s lack of response to COVID-19 spiking among college students.
“First, I found the communication strategy of the ISU administration to be deeply troubling focused on as is downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak through misleading information and number two, there’s been nowhere near as a strong enough response to the alarming rise of COVID cases during the first four weeks of the semester,” Rejack said.
Graduate student and member of the graduate workers union, Trevor Rickerd expresses his concern that the university is “too little, too late” in its response to containing COVID-19 on campus.
“It seems clear to me that the university should have had the foresight to understand that a lack of testing and a lack of mandates before even having students come on campus would have led to large spikes of COVID-19 on campus,” Rickerd said. “We should have expected that and that’s exactly what happened.”
Rickerd does mention that funds for testing at ISU were reallocated to other agencies in need but brings up the fact the other schools such as U of I had other means of testing available.
ISU President Larry Dietz responded to the claims of the university’s lack of response and action toward the COVID-19 outbreak among students by saying that not nearly as much testing is being done at other Illinois colleges nor are they being as transparent, compared to ISU.
Dietz says he holds weekly calls with other university presidents and states they all believe they are doing what is best for their college during this unprecedented time.
“Indeed, I would say that we are transparently reporting more and more information than the others.”
Dietz also mentions the ISU coronavirus dashboard is changing to include more information in the reporting of numbers.
John Baur, chemistry professor and lead coordinator for COVID-19 testing at ISU is working on getting the saliva-based test used at U of I at ISU for the spring semester. Baur also discussed what else will be added to the ISU COVID-19 dashboard within the next week.
The dashboard only reports the number of positive tests done and not the active positive cases. It also does not show those who have retested positive two weeks after initial infection. Baur mentioned that about 80 students have retested positive which does not accurately show the current, active cases among students.
Some students are also tested repeatedly such as those in clinicals who might come into contact with COVID-19 and athletes.
“With the new dashboard that will be coming out next week hopefully, we are going to switch to reporting by cases so that means each positive case will be a person and not a test,” Baur said.
Active and recovered cases will also be added onto the dashboard. Baur emphasizes nothing is being removed from the dashboard, just added to be more transparent in COVID-19 cases.
Faculty and staff numbers will also be added to the dashboard except those numbers are self-reported by the individuals themselves since ISU does not offer testing to faculty and staff like they do for students.
Tuesday night's party with YouTube pranksters Nelk at The Lodge was discussed after videos surfaced across social media showing a crowd of over hundreds of students with no masks and no social distancing.
Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson told the board that as of Saturday, the university has already started the process to contact the individuals who were in attendance.
“There is no time frame because we have already begun. We have been receiving information specifically on people who allegedly were involved in that incident,” Johnson said. “We are also receiving help from the Normal Police Department and our own police department as far as identifying individuals.”
As of Friday, about eight students have received letters from the conduct office, asking them to come in for a meeting regarding their behavior.
“We are expecting we are going to have 100 or more individuals that we are following up with, and if those individuals are found responsible, the sanctions span the spectrum and include being required to undergo educational training,” Johnson said. “But if they are found to have been responsible for actually forming those social gatherings, they could face suspensions.”
Board of Trustee member Kathy Bohn does believe most students are doing what is right and expected of them to keep themselves and the community safe but that it is the minority of students who are ultimately ruining it for others.
ISU is working toward having more testing available within the upcoming months and is hoping that Redbirds will continue to follow the guidelines and hold others accountable moving forward.