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Nearly Halfway Through Spring Semester, Some UF Faculty Remain Concerned With UF’s COVID-19 Testing Policy

UF students drop off saliva samples on the ground floor of the Broward/Newell garage, one of UF’s COVID-19 testing sites. (Victoria Someillan/WUFT News)
UF students drop off saliva samples on the ground floor of the Broward/Newell garage, one of UF’s COVID-19 testing sites. (Victoria Someillan/WUFT News)

University of Florida faculty members continue to raise concerns over UF’s COVID-19 testing protocols.

The concern consists of questions like: Why are students cleared for campus before receiving their COVID-19 test results? Why are some students cleared for campus even after being exposed to someone who has since tested positive for COVID-19?

So far, their questions remain largely unanswered. 

UF psychology lecturer Dr. Brian Cahill has experienced issues with testing firsthand. He said students in his classes have been cleared for campus by UF’s  Screen, Test & Protect initiative after being exposed to COVID-19 as long as they do not show symptoms.

“Students email me saying ‘I don’t feel comfortable coming back,’” he said. “I’m like ‘No, absolutely, I don’t feel comfortable with you being in the room, so please quarantine for two weeks.’”

Cahill opted to teach an in-person class this spring semester, but after finding out his wife was pregnant, he immediately regretted it.

“If I had gone back and knew that she was going to be pregnant, I wouldn't have done it because it's not good to be teaching and exposing myself and exposing her and the baby,” he said. “I got to a point where I can't back out and cancel the class because students would be affected.”

According to Screen, Test & Protect, routine testing is required every two weeks for students who are living in residence halls, UF’s Greek community who reside in or have a meal plan within their Greek residence and students with in-person classes.

Still, these students are cleared for campus before receiving their test results.

According to an email from Screen, Test & Protect send to all faculty Feb. 17, 2021, students or faculty who are COVID-19 symptom-free or not a close contact to a positive case is cleared.

“Remember, a test is a snapshot in time. This does not mean a person will not get sick in the future. It only means the person did not have COVID-19 at the time of testing,” according to an email statement that UF Health Screen, Test & Protect program managers sent to WUFT News.

According to the same email, COVID-19 numbers across campus, the state and country remain “very encouraging.” The seven-day average positive rate among Screen, Test & Protect is below 1%, and the initiative says it gets 25 to 30 cases a day identified among all UF students, faculty and staff.

The Alligator on Monday reported that the university will likely move to drop some COVID-19 capacity restrictions during the summer.

Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola, who has been very critical about UF’s handling of the pandemic, believes UF’s clearing for campus process after a student reports they have been exposed is due to the fact that they are not asking students the right questions.

“Did you ride in a car with that person? Were you both wearing your masks? Probably not,” Arreola said. “Maybe you were, maybe you weren't? I don't know. It’s not an exact science” 

UF faculty have also reported glitches in the system.

At a Feb. 3 news conference sponsored by the United Faculty of Florida and the Graduate Assistants United chapters of UF, the statewide United Faculty of Florida and the Florida Education Association, the FEA’s Secretary-Treasurer Nandi Riley, read a personal account from an anonymous UF faculty member about their experience getting cleared for campus.

In early January, the anonymous faculty member started showing symptoms related to COVID-19 and eventually fell very ill. The faculty member self-reported, but was cleared for campus. As they became more ill, they called the testing site to make an appointment. At that point, they were no longer cleared for campus.

“I asked them why they had waited so long to change my status,” said the anonymous writer. They said it was a glitch in the system, the same system that supposedly is rendering campus safe for all.”

Although Cahill believes UF’s testing policy is flawed, he is grateful for his students who are taking matters into their own hands. He said he believes students are being “a lot more responsible than some of the policies that we’re putting into place.”

“I've had at least two students test positive across all my classes, but when they have, they've emailed me, and they've told me, and then they self quarantine,” he said. “I had one student in research methods who told me that she came into contact with someone, and she self quarantined.”

Meanwhile, Arreola said UF’s testing policy ultimately trickles down into the community.

“It's been a huge cause of spread in our community, and you know, there's been periods where you can see, to the contact tracing, evidence of the coronavirus jumping from the college age group to the millennial, older millennial age group and to the middle age group,” he said.

At the end of the day, Arreola believes everyone is still searching for answers.

“I don't think anyone got this right. Not the federal government. Not the state of Florida. Not California. God bless New York and what they've been through,” he said. “At the end of the day, people need to take more responsibility for themselves, but at the same time, institutions, governing institutions, need to be evaluating their decisions more thoroughly, and more critically.”

Arreola said he is proud UF has taken a strong stance on requiring masks on campus, saying it has played a huge part in protecting students and faculty.

UF’s mask policy states everyone is required to wear a mask or cloth face covering at UF and UF Health facilities. Masks must be worn in all classrooms, common areas, conference rooms, etc. Exemptions include private workspaces and outdoor spaces where physician distancing of 6 feet can be maintained.

It's been an unbelievable effort from them,” Arreola said, “and they've borne more than their share of the burden.”

Victoria is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.