Many of us aren’t experts in the science and accompanying practices surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic that the country and world are experiencing. However, we can and do recognize that the dangers of the virus are real and deadly. Those dangers disproportionately affect those in the Black and other marginalized communities because of their increased likelihood of not being able to work from home and their jobs being “essential,” forcing them to go to work to make a living. Systemic racism and unequal access to health care mean that that many of these workers, and the communities that they are part of, are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Current practice at SLU puts its essential workers in danger for an additional and easily avoidable reason: SLU is not notifying its essential workers of potential exposure on-campus to the virus.
Word recently spread “through the grapevine” that a Division of Public Safety (DPS) employee tested positive for the virus. The positive test was quietly confirmed by a SLU administrator. However, SLU administrators have chosen not to formally inform members of DPS or the university community. In other cases, notifications have gone out when members of the university community may have been exposed to an individual who tested positive; these notifications warned about non-DPS staff and/or faculty who tested positive but haven’t even been on campus, as well as students who are on campus who have tested positive.
Why has the fact that a DPS member tested positive not at least been shared formally with members of that department, no less the SLU community? Who made the decision not to inform? Were supervisors within the department prevented from informing their colleagues? If so, why, and by whom?
These are dangerous times for DPS members of the SLU community. They face anger towards those in uniform that seems to increase with each passing day. They face the dangers of COVID-19. In response to these conditions, DPS members have heard that “this is what you signed up for.” However, DPS members didn’t “sign up” for SLU administrators to not show them the common decency and respect of notifications of potential dangers to themselves and their families due to COVID-19 cases within their department. Their family members—who may have chronic co-morbidities—didn’t “sign up” for such a lack of decency and respect. DPS members should be able to expect to be given information about COVID-19 cases that could adversely affect their families, so that they can make appropriate decisions about whether to distance from them.
The university provided housing for medical workers who didn’t want to go home to loved ones after possible exposure to the virus. DPS members are not given the same opportunity. Why not? DPS officers are offered housing when there is a potential snow or ice storm in the forecast—to make sure that they have no excuses for not making it to work, as they are so “essential.” Are DPS members not vital enough to be notified about potential exposure to COVID-19?
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s important to know that the DPS office is completely enclosed, with no windows that open. There is no real secluded area for DPS members. All equipment is stored in one place for all to access at the start and end of each shift and throughout the day. Each day, every department member enters and exits through the same door; accesses the same key box to obtain their keys for the day; uses the same refrigerator, coffee, and water handles. All use a single computer to fill out a health screening form for COVID-19 each day. One of the questions on the form asks about exposure to a person with COVID-19. How can members of the department possibly answer this question appropriately if SLU administrators have chosen not to inform them of cases within the department?
Members of SLU’s DPS department put on a uniform each day not knowing what the day ahead will have in store and knowing that they are potentially the first line of defense against bad things happening to and in our SLU community. They know what they “signed up for.” They have and continue to put themselves in harm’s way to keep those in and around the SLU community safe. Those at SLU who have taken the time and effort to get to know members of the DPS department know that the job is more than a way of earning a living; for many DPS members, the job is their vocation.
How do we suppose DPS members felt when they received text messages and emails going out to the university community recently about “the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in student housing?” To some, it likely felt like another kick in the gut, given that SLU administrators have summarily dismissed the need to notify DPS members of potential virus exposure from one of their own colleagues. SLU administrators chose not to warn DPS members to look out for symptoms. SLU administrators chose not to test DPS members to make sure they were COVID-19 free.
With their failure to notify, SLU administrators have sent a clear signal about what it means to be an “essential employee” at SLU and where DPS members fall in the “pecking order” on campus. When word was sent to the entire community about a student case, the messages stated that the reason notification was being provided was to comply with the Clery Act. Does the Clery Act, which identifies the importance of transparency in informing, not apply to staff, or has the SLU administration violated the Clery Act? Moreover, does not our Jesuit university hold itself to a higher moral standard than mere legal compliance? Does “Higher Purpose. Greater Good.” only apply to some members of the community? Do members of SLU’s administration not have an obligation to be “men and women for others” when it comes to “essential” employees. Does the administration believe that “OneSLU” applies to all members of the university community?
There is no acceptable excuse for the failure to formally notify DPS members about their colleague’s case of COVID-19. None.
No member of our community is expendable and none should be treated as such.
As is the practice at other universities, to keep our community safe—and especially to safeguard our essential workers—SLU administrators must change course and appropriately notify the SLU community of COVID-19 cases among its members who have been on campus in a transparent and timely manner.