Incautious Messaging and Cautious Optimism

This is the third column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison University.
by Joe Fitzgerald

Except for the occasional late-night Facebook message, James Madison University has rarely responded to anything I’ve written. And those messages are like drunk dials from an ex; I appreciate the attention, but I wish they still loved me in the morning. One exception came the week before the September meeting of the Board of Visitors, a Virginia term for what the rest of the world calls a Board of Trustees. A JMU senior communications official responded to a Facebook question on one of my threads from a JMU parent. The official said she could contact the Board of Visitors through a link that he provided.

My friend composed and sent a long discussion of her feelings about JMU’s reopening plans. She lives in Tidewater, but has family in Harrisonburg and follows my COVID numbers posts about cases here. Later she and others who’d commented at the link provided by JMU, found out through a story in the Richmond paper that the comments were never shown to the board members.

People were allowed to comment before the board meeting. The comments weren’t forwarded to the board. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s no law that says they have to allow comment at all, and no law that says anybody has to read the comments. One more reason Virginia should tighten FOI requirements.

The Board of Visitors skirted the FOIA, the local committee wasn’t strictly subject to it, and enforcement of the law is somewhat toothless. Other than relatively light fines, there are only two penalties for violating FOIA in Virginia. One is the public embarrassment of being caught. The other is having people make  assumptions, perhaps unfair, about what was discussed. Those were points I heard made in an orientation for newly elected officials 20 years ago, but I already knew it from time spent in journalism.

But the real mistake in holding a closed governmental meeting is that it’s almost never necessary. Over personnel, maybe. Nuisance value of a lawsuit, I guess. Response to a deadly pandemic, probably not. On the one hand, it was good to know that somebody was discussing the pandemic, especially with thousands of students beginning to come back from all over Virginia. On the other, it would have been good to know more about what was being discussed.

I heard gossip about the topics, but nothing definite. And I heard it from people who won’t tell me gossip any more if I discuss details. But the gist seemed to be that a message was being formulated, and ultimately the committee, renamed Vigilance for the Valley, put out a lot of information about COVID responses. It would have been better if they’d produced  new enforceable regulations as the students trickled back into town and began their traditional pre-semester parties. The Vigilance for the Valley committee, by the way, was not a JMU effort. It was started with good intentions by local folk who did some good as far as raising public awareness. I include it here in part for FOIA context.

We needed more information from the Board of Visitors and from the Senior Leadership Team, information and criteria that were not in the plan approved by SCHEV. We needed to know what the administration would consider an unmanageable outbreak – how many cases among 21,000 students – and what the reaction would be. We needed a coordinated response to established student behavior in August and September that’s a pain in the ass in a normal year and was a mortal danger in 2020. Many students are responsible and come to learn. But just five percent is still a thousand students.

Nothing that could be called a plan came out of the Vigilance for the Valley committee, but that wasn’t really why it was formed. The intent, as with many things, was good, but it was their first pandemic. Ultimately, it was probably good to have a lot of folks talking to one another, albeit secretly, but it wouldn’t have hurt anything to put the discussions on television. But that’s just not the way people in government tend to think.

They could avoid the FOIA because there were not more than two members on any government body on the committee. Three members, it’s a meeting; two members, it’s not. That’s the dodge JMU President Jon Alger used to prep for Board of Visitors meetings. He or a member of the Senior Leadership Team would call board members, two at a time, to get them ready for the meetings. One of the advantages of that is having all the board members knowing enough that they don’t really need to ask questions at the meetings. Presenters can leave out things they don’t want to make public. There are no surprises.

JMU’s administration went after the student newspaper, The Breeze, when the fledgling journalists reported on the pre-meeting subterfuge. They accused the students of shoddy journalism because they hadn’t asked Alger for comment. But the school didn’t challenge a single fact in The Breeze reporter’s story about Alger’s efforts to skirt FOIA requirements.

I’m aware while editing a lot of earlier writing about JMU’s COVID misfires that there are things I might be wrong about. I flatter myself that I might be important for one of those errors to deserve mention by JMU’s communication apparatus. Should that happen, I hope I’ll get the same logical consideration I gave The Breeze when the administration attacked their reporting. The first thing to ask is whether any fact is being challenged. Not so much with Alumnae Hall’s petulance toward The Breeze. Characterizations, accusations, adjectives, but no real challenge to the facts.

When a critic of a writer or publication characterizes what’s written based on a reaction to a single fact or sentence or implication, that critic is telling you that everything else their target wrote or published was right. If it wasn’t, the critic would overreact to everything else as well.

Woodward and Bernstein came under heavy attack from the Nixon White House when they reported that Hugh Sloan had named H.R. Haldeman before a grand jury. He hadn’t. To me that didn’t hurt their credibility, but rather bolstered it. Everything else had to be right, or the Nixon White House would have said otherwise. Sloan later told the reporters he would have named Haldeman, but wasn’t asked. But I digress.

The flip side of the credibility issue is the error recognized only by the reader. I always looked for that in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The paper had once been a credible if right-leaning news source, but while it never drifted left, its standards shifted down. I was always particularly annoyed by the exaggerations and sensationalizations of one of its political reporters, Patrick Wilson. As a political “insider,” albeit sometimes a reluctant one, I could see that his writing, if not yellow journalism, certainly tended sallow at times.

I was similarly disappointed with Eric Kolenich, whose writing about higher education and COVID was one of the few sources covering most of the state. In October he reported, apropos of nothing, that JMU’s massive outbreak may have come from the surrounding community of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. He quoted someone from VCU who made the accusation based on a single isolated number. (Two percent of the city’s residents had been infected, months before by then, in partially isolated outbreaks.) That one glaring error, which Kolenich refused to acknowledge or correct, made me wonder how much more of his writing was sloppy or lazy enough not to be trusted.

The partially isolated outbreaks were at Accordius, a nursing home, and among the Latino population of the city and county. Twenty-two people died at Accordius, at a time when 60% of deaths in Virginia were in nursing homes. The Latino surge apparently began in the poultry plants and then spread among workers’ families and community. That surge resulted in fewer hospitalizations and deaths, but unlike the Accordius outbreak, it was difficult from available numbers to be precise.

The poultry worker surge was over by the middle of June, and while it and the Accordius outbreak caused numbers to rise in the spring, neither caused the hundreds of cases at JMU in the fall. I’ve often wondered if the story was planted — pimped, in old school newsroom jargon — by somebody at JMU.

Local numbers spiked during Accordius, but didn’t quite go back down. The city’s numbers for the last year have consistently been among the highest among Virginia’s urban areas. But two weeks after Accordius, a city spokesperson was still blaming it for the city’s high numbers. I put up a couple of Facebook posts that week with the goal of someone telling me what was causing the numbers to go up. At this writing, a year later, I’m still posting them every day.

Cautious Optimism

By the time classes began at James Madison University, a lot of people knew it was going to be ugly. It’s hard to guess if Alger was one of them, or if there was anybody who could have told him. There were many adjectives that could have been applied to his performance, but awkward was the one that seemed to keep popping up. Or perhaps I just noticed it more because the JMU comms person had reportedly described him that way.

He and the school always seemed as out of touch as a day-old news story. One weird clue to the school’s detachment, if not its arrogance, came when many parents began complaining about voicemail messages and automatic email replies saying people were out of the office due to COVID. Why, the parents wanted to know, did their children have to be in class and on campus when the staffers and administrators did not?

JMU’s answer was to tell people to remove the messages and replies. If people get upset when told the offices are empty, just don’t tell them. Problem solved.

  • “Please remove this type of COVID-19 verbiage from your web pages and from voice mail messages. The Vice Presidents have all agreed that this language needs to be removed as parents and students are asking why faculty and staff are not on campus when students are.
  • “Example of language that needs to be removed: ‘Due to James Madison University’s desire to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the community, some members of our team are working off-site. While we are periodically checking our phones, the best way to reach us is by email.’”

Classes began on a Thursday, Aug. 27. Alger sent out the now-infamous “Cautious Optimism” email the next day. On Monday, the campus closed.

Closed? Classes went online. The closure of the dorms was announced, with some exceptions. The Washington Post and the Richmond paper reported that students were sent home. But those exceptions turned out to be half of the 6,000 students who lived on campus. Ultimately, only 15% of the students had been “sent home.” The Senior Leadership Team had not closed the campus. They had “de-densified” it. A senior JMU communications official would later describe the school as “willing to send kids home last semester when the other schools stockpiled sick kids in dorms despite how we knew how it would affect our ‘image’ and financial situation.”

By that Monday, 120 students had COVID. Three weeks later, the number was 1,300.

In Alger’s “Cautious Optimism” email that Friday, he wrote that the number of cases was not “singularly determinant” in the school’s decision making. He then referred his readers to a Virginia Department of Health web page that he implied would back up his contention. It didn’t. I’ve always wondered if that was outright mendacity or just sloppy editing. Regardless the email went out, and moderators on the JMU subreddit changed from reporting the number of members to reporting the number of cautious optimists.

I don’t know how many people there are in the upper hierarchy of other schools who  are self-aware enough to know they’re over their heads, but not self-confident enough to admit it. JMU has a lot of old guard people who have been there long enough and known so little else that the bubble is a little thicker there. A Senior Leadership Team member who had cut their teeth at other schools once summed up the leadership situation at JMU: The newcomers say, “Oh, my God!” and the old-timers say, “What’s wrong?”

Were Senior Leadership Team decisions to blame for the surge at JMU? From the Atlantic in early summer:

Despite serious public-health concerns, Tulane and other campuses are slated to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. Students will get infected, and universities will rebuke them for it; campuses will close, and students will be blamed for it. Relying on the self-control of young adults, rather than deploying the public-health infrastructure needed to control a disease that spreads easily among people who live, eat, study, and socialize together, is not a safe reopening strategy—and yelling at students for their dangerous behavior won’t help either.

JMU’s Facebook page said in August, “JMU faculty and staff have been working tirelessly to prepare for the return of students to campus in the coming weeks. And while we are prepared for the inevitable contingencies created by COVID-19, the campus community is looking forward to the start of the fall semester on August 26.”

Were student parties “inevitable contingencies”?

At the height of the JMU outbreak, Sept. 7, there were 143 new cases reported from Harrisonburg, and the 7-day average of new cases was 73. JMU’s Senior Leadership Team had consistently blamed the outbreak on student parties. In-person classes had moved on line a week before, and 15% of the student body had been ordered off campus. A week or two later, the average number of new cases daily had dropped from horrible to awful. It was double what it had been in July and early August, but no longer 12-25 times as high.

Did the parties stop? Was there an end to the parties that JMU’s leadership blamed, and is that why new cases were only double what they were before students returned?

I suspected there were two factors in play. One was that back-to-campus parties at JMU traditionally happened on the first three weekends of the school year, so much so that city, county, state, and campus police were either on duty or on alert — many of them with jail jumpsuits in the trunk of the cruiser for the benefit of those students who were underdressed for their arrest. In addition to the parties naturally lessening in late September, there was also the fact that the case count wasn’t due only to the parties. Dorm, dining hall, and classroom photos and videos made their way to Twitter and Instagram. They showed people sitting on the floor in one crowded classroom, and auditoriums with less than four feet of spacing between students.

Based on the numbers, cases started increasing in mid-August when upper-class students came back, and skyrocketed when classes began. Neither parties nor over-crowded classrooms were singularly determinant. There were 21,000 college-age people in one place and some number of them, more than 10% at the very least, were either unlucky or incautious or both.

Meanwhile, if you accepted the greed argument — JMU opened only for the money — the university’s action seemed planned and seemed to make sense. They established a viable school year and got enough folks committed and in the door to keep the lights on. Unfortunately that explanation also requires crediting the school’s leadership with prescience, inscrutability, and genius.

“[A JMU spokesperson] said Tuesday that the school found that cases were contracted through social gatherings — a majority of which have occurred off campus,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The spokesperson also said, according to the T-D, “You know, there’s nothing at blame here except for the virus.”

Another senior official blamed the dorms later when a second outbreak — or perhaps a cluster — threatened the school’s football season. The messaging was inconsistent in some of the details, but consistent in its shortcomings, particularly as it dealt with its own student newspaper.

The football season, by the way, had to continue, the coach said in the fall before the school decided to delay the season until the spring term. JMU had to “protect its brand,” the coach said.

A retired journalist, former mayor of Harrisonburg, and former employee of James Madison University, Joe Fitzgerald publishes a column, Still Not Sleeping, on SubstackThis column was republished with permission.

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2 responses to “Incautious Messaging and Cautious Optimism”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    So, maybe I read this wrong:

    ” The comments weren’t forwarded to the board. You can’t make this stuff up. There’s no law that says they have to allow comment at all, and no law that says anybody has to read the comments. One more reason Virginia should tighten FOI requirements.

    The Board of Visitors skirted the FOIA, the local committee wasn’t strictly subject to it, and enforcement of the law is somewhat toothless. Other than relatively light fines, there are only two penalties for violating FOIA in Virginia. One is the public embarrassment of being caught. The other is having people make assumptions, perhaps unfair, about what was discussed. Those were points I heard made in an orientation for newly elected officials 20 years ago, but I already knew it from time spent in journalism.

    But the real mistake in holding a closed governmental meeting is that it’s almost never necessary.”

    Is a refusal to receive comments or read them tantamount to a closed meeting?

    Are minutes available for the meetings?

    I relate a development proposal in our county that was controversial – and ultimately, it generated thousands of comments, many from outside the county and the Board of Supervisors said – they simply did not have the time to go through all those emails… Some tried but said it would take up so much of their time that they would have no life.

    To me, that’s not a closed meeting but perhaps I misunderstood or misread the essay.

  2. CJBova Avatar

    @Joe Fitzgerald: Had you noticed that JMU is not on the
    VDH-Outbreaks-In-Higher-Education-Settings dataset?

    I wrote in September “On September 5, reported 650 active cases at James Madison University. Harrisonburg is in the Central Shenandoah Health District and was showing increasing cases in August” and about COVID numbers at three other universities. I said, “Oddly though, with more than 1,600 cases in just four universities since mid-August, the VDH Outbreaks tab on the Daily Dashboard shows only 409 cases reported as of September 8 in educational facilities (a category that includes day care, K-12, and colleges).”

    It looks like JMU never reported any cases as outbreaks, and VDH deliberately ignored the university dashboards.

    VDH responded to an emailed question saying, ”
    “Once the students are back on campus, if they go to a private testing site or healthcare provider, the address given by the student will be the one that is used. Some students will use their on-campus address, whereas others will give their parent’s or family’s home address, often due to insurance and coverage. ” So any positive tests done while a student was on-campus would not be counted as happening at a university unless the student gave a university address. Still doesn’t explain why case investigators didn’t record JMU outbreaks, unless the local health district worked with the university to avoid connecting cases to on-campus exposure.

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