SEPT. 7, 2021: Message from President McPhee: Our personal responsibilities in the pandemic

To the University community,

As we enter the third week of classes for the Fall semester, I want to remind our campus community of our priorities in managing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and clarify expectations for the personal responsibilities of each of us in making decisions that best protect our health.

While health and safety remain our top concern, it is also very important we continue to offer the full spectrum of on-campus classes and activities and to minimize disruption to our students. To that end, we have developed a multifaceted approach to reduce the contagion of COVID-19 among our students, faculty and staff.

Our plan is based upon the best advice of the Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH), current CDC guidelines, and campus and other public health professionals. Details of the campus plan for dealing with the coronavirus can be found here:

Three questions continue to arise, and I want to address them directly in this message: How we are making decisions about contact tracing? What is our policy on notification of a positive case in a classroom? And can faculty/staff work from home if they are caring for a dependent with COVID-19?

First, how we make decisions about contact tracing: Our plan is based upon the best advice of the Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH), current CDC guidelines, and campus and other public health professionals. Specifically, this question seems to arise in relation to how MTSU is defining a “close contact.” The CDC continues to define a close contact as being in contact with a person who is infected for greater than 15 minutes at a distance of less than 6 feet. However, the Tennessee Department of Health has added an additional piece to the definition as related to the K-12 indoor classroom setting, specifying that the close contact definition excludes individuals if both the infected individual and the exposed individual correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time. 

On the MTSU campus, we are taking the guidance of both the CDC and the TDOH into account as we evaluate the exposure of close contacts. We are also aware that the community environment of the state as a whole is not operating under the same restrictions as it was during the first year of the pandemic. Students, faculty and staff are making a variety of personal decisions to engage in activities both on and off campus, which may expose them to COVID-19 infection. Our plan encourages members of the campus community to test for COVID-19 when they feel ill, and for students to report positive tests to MTSU Student Health Services. That positions our medical professionals to better assess each circumstance and make effective recommendations on defining close contacts and whether quarantine is needed. Our decisions are a bit more flexible than they were a year ago, because we do not want to discourage testing and reporting. We employed highly aggressive close contact quarantine measures last spring and, as a result, experienced a decrease in student testing and a likely increase in unreported positives. 

Second, our policy on notification of a positive case in a classroom: To maintain compliance with current standards of care with respect to medical privacy, MTSU Student Health Services will not communicate directly with faculty regarding a student’s diagnosis. MTSU Student Health Services will conduct contact tracing of any student who tests positive for COVID-19 through a test at MTSU Student Health Services and for students living on campus who report a positive test from any testing source. It is also true that many students, faculty, and employees may be tested off-campus and do not report positive tests to the campus. For every student who has reported a positive test case within a specific class section, it is likely that there are others in the class who also tested positive and have not made a report. We continue to believe that the best possible protection against COVID-19 infection in a fully operating campus environment is to get the vaccination and consistently wear a well-fitting face mask. 

However, our plan does specify the responsibility of faculty to work directly with students who must isolate or quarantine. They should provide avenues to allow these students to keep up with their classes. We have advised students who must miss class because of isolation or quarantine requirements to contact their instructors directly and make arrangements to keep up with coursework while they are unable to attend. 

Finally, questions continue to surface about permission for faculty and employees to work from home or to move classes online if they are dealing with dependents who test positive for COVID-19: MTSU is committed to doing everything possible to ensure the full on-campus experience, including classes’ continuing throughout the fall term in the format noted. Students and their families, who have committed to residing locally so as to participate in the life of the campus, deserve our every effort to maintain both the classroom and out-of-classroom engagement that supports student learning and development. Faculty teaching on-ground should continue teaching on-ground unless they become ill, or are placed in quarantine, themselves.

Of course, we will continue to closely monitor the health and safety of our campus community as we move through the semester, making appropriate adjustments to our plans as required and monitoring protocols and recommendations from state and federal health officials. Specifically, we will be evaluating the following benchmarks before permitting any changes to method of instruction or delivering of campus services:

  1. Recommendations from state health officials regarding closures of schools or businesses.
  2. Capacity restrictions being enacted by local hospitals that would impact the ability to provide hospitalization and treatment for members of the campus community.
  3. Development of a new variant that renders the current vaccinations ineffective in safeguarding against infection.  
  4. Levels of illness and quarantine among students and employees that leave us unable to render campus classes and services.
  5. For on-campus residential students, we will monitor our usage of available quarantine/isolation beds, and if they reach full capacity, may impose requirements that quarantine and isolation be sought at home or off campus.   

As I stressed in my address to the faculty at the start of the semester, the primary responsibility for protecting our health in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic while on campus has shifted from the institution to the individual. It is also our view that the single best step you can take to protect yourself from the coronavirus and its variants is to get vaccinated. I appreciate the efforts of MTSU Student Health Services to continue to provide free vaccination to our students, faculty and staff, as well as the total campus effort to take care of one another by the consistent wearing of masks.

Sidney A. McPhee


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