Roughly two in 10 students on Western Michigan University's campus still haven’t had a COVID-19 shot, according to numbers released last week. The school says not to worry, because it’s testing the unvaccinated, requiring masking indoors and beefing up ventilation to contain the virus. But critics see flaws in the badging system meant to keep sick people out of shared spaces, and a lack of physical distancing in classrooms has some instructors worried.
Professor Elke Schoffers teaches chemistry at WMU. Standing at a projector in a big classroom in the chemistry building, she draws molecules and reactions as a few dozen students look on.
Even in this relatively spacious room, Schoffers said she can’t guarantee students six feet of distance, especially when everyone shows up. It’s concerning to Schoffers, who’s wearing a KN95 mask and a t-shirt with the message “stop swapping air.”
“Imagine you sit next to somebody, you’re wearing a mask, a cloth mask, and that person is smoking. Do you think you would smell that? Those are the aerosols we’re exchanging. That’s what swapping air is,” Schoffers said.
Aerosols potentially containing the virus that causes COVID-19. Western’s positivity rate has trended down recently. Last week it fell to one in a hundred people tested. But the school hasn’t mandated vaccination. Some students say the badging system for accessing shared spaces needs work. And the lack of distancing has some instructors, students and staff worried about viral spread.
Distancing came up at rally on campus last month, where several unions called for WMU to revisit its COVID policies. Picketer Morgan Peltier is a teaching assistant in the history department who’s teaching online right now. But Peltier said some fellow TAs work in packed rooms.
“It’s impossible to more than two feet apart. It’s impossible to stop the spread of COVID in those conditions,” Peltier said.
The Centers for Disease Control lists physical distancing of at least six feet as one of its key prevention strategies for colleges and universities like Western where not everyone is vaccinated. But in an interview with WMUK, Provost Jennifer Bott didn’t put much stock in the official distancing guidelines.
“I think the science on distancing has probably been the most questioned over the past six months. And certainly if you were watching the news last weekend [in late September] you heard a lot of people talking about what appeared to be the arbitrary nature of 10 feet versus six feet versus three feet,” Bott said.
The CDC has said three feet of distancing in K through 12 schools is all right. And some experts recommend 10 feet for extra protection.
Beyond distancing, faculty and students have also questioned the effectiveness of the badges –the virtual color-coded passes issued each day to everyone on campus. They’re meant to keep sick and untested people out of classrooms, cafeterias and libraries. Green means you’re good to go. Some faculty have called them unwieldy to check, but Bott disagrees.
“Have the students walk in single-file. Most of our classes are under 50,” she said.
But students and faculty say the system can be gamed. The badges have a name, but no picture. Students say they’ve passed checkpoints by showing a picture of a friend’s badge. Western recently enlarged the date so users can’t pass off an old badge as a new one.
Bott says not every professor wants to check badges, and that’s okay. But Teaching Assistants Union President Thomas Fisher said it also means a COVID-positive student may go undetected.
“Perhaps the classes that student has gone to earlier in the day didn’t check badges. So now they’ve exposed one, two classrooms, people where they went to eat or study and I’m just now catching them at the end of the day,” Fisher said.
He added that students have shown up for his colleagues’ classes with badges other than green, meaning they’re not supposed to be there. He said students have even shown up with the badge indicating they've been diagnosed with COVID.
“I don’t want to find out that a student is COVID-positive when they’re standing in my classroom. It’s too late at that point," he said.
Fisher added that he'd like to see Western find a way make that information available before students come to class.