Inside the Bubble the Slightest Breeze Is a Threat

This is the fourth column in a four-part series about COVID-19 at James Madison Joe FitzgeraldThe Breeze

was always the “award-winning student newspaper” in JMU public relations — until the paper began filing Freedom of Information requests with the administration. The battle became public when the school decided to give the local paper, The Daily News-Record, first access to COVID data The Breeze had been requesting repeatedly. The university spokesperson broke one of the first rules of PR: don’t become the story. The explanations for dissing The Breeze were convoluted, at best. They boiled down to The Breeze had called every day, but it hadn’t called before the DNR that day.

The administration lashed out at The Breeze again when the paper reported Alger skirting the FOIA. At one point the Richmond newspaper said the JMU spokesperson had provided inaccurate information. And when the Richmond paper ran an editorial lambasting state universities for the way they’d handled the beginning of the fall semester, they illustrated it with a photo of Alger. Later The Breeze requested the number of COVID cases broken down by dorm. JMU consistently refused. It would have been a service to parents all over Virginia, not to mention New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to know where on campus the infections were most prevalent. But the university didn’t have to release those numbers if it didn’t want to.

Those inside the JMU bubble never seemed to understand why they were being criticized. The senior communications official’s comments about other schools stockpiling sick kids came in a series of late-night Facebook messages to me complaining I was “on the wrong side of the narrative.” Another long-time acquaintance unfriended me on Facebook after complaining about my comments on their work at JMU. At the same time, administrators outside the Senior Leadership Team sometimes fed me links and information critical of the school. (The local COVID numbers I post daily and my willingness to post informed, honest interpretations of them have given me some local prominence in addition to what I already had as a former mayor and political activist.)

The Senior Leadership Team had already decided to begin some in-person instruction again on October 5 when the Board of Visitors met in September. That meeting was marked by two oddities. One was how few questions the board had about COVID and about JMU’s almost universally criticized fall semester. The other was that none of the comments or questions submitted by parents and other concerned parties was answered or even referred to. Later we’d find out the board had few questions because of the FOIA-skirting prior briefings, and it had no response to the parents’ comments because the members hadn’t seen them.

One of the presentations at the meeting described the goals of Response, Reassurance, and Recovery in the school’s communication plan. At least they responded.

In the first six full months of the pandemic, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County combined had 4,127 COVID cases. Forty percent of them, 1,655, came in September. Only 17% came in June and July. The daily numbers from VDH, local anecdotes, and the JMU information that could be fully trusted made a few things clear.

First, JMU students no longer lived only in the city. A lot of people already knew that, but the increases in Harrisonburg cases and smaller but concurrent ones in Rockingham County made clear how much student housing there was on the city’s outskirts. That meant more traffic and also more empty student housing in the city. The housing in the city continues to appeal to younger and often larger families. It’s tempting to say they increase the burden on the city’s school system, but it’s really the builders doing that.

Local anecdotes suggested that a panic about COVID increased student testing. In addition to public testing, many students were reportedly going by the carload to urgent care facilities where they could be tested for between $50 and $100. That community panic meant many asymptomatic students were tested, but because of peer pressure and not because of symptoms. The information was valuable to have, for them and for the community, but may have slightly exaggerated the size of the JMU surge, to the extent that you can exaggerate 2,114 cases among 21,000 students.

JMU officials stressed that most of the student cases were mild. Among the people saying that was JMU student affairs VP Tim Miller, who has a reputation for honesty and decency in addition to superior communication skills. His comments often gave genuine and accurate reassurance on JMU parents social media groups.

The bigger question for the community at large, after the humanitarian questions of how sick the students were and how many were sick, was whether the infections had spread to the off-campus community. The best answer is that there’s no way to know. Anecdotally, COVID spread among downtown service workers and many of them blamed it on students, but there’s no information isolated by demographic or location that could be used to measure that spread.

When students returned to campus on October 5, it was to a privately chastened university, albeit a publicly upbeat one. Some students stayed in their apartments when they could, while others behaved as if herd immunity had already been attained. Distance in classes was greater, and party season was over. For two months the average daily new cases in the city were between 10 and 20. They stayed there until the post-Thanksgiving surge that hit the whole country. By then students were home until January, when another surge began on campus. VDH numbers suggested the winter surge was worst in the dorms, but not as bad as September. As national and Rockingham County numbers went down, Harrisonburg’s went up again. The winter surge put the football season in jeopardy as 12 players tested positive and 28 were quarantined. Comments about the football season drew sharp criticism from JMU’s communications and marketing division, including the comments about other schools stockpiling sick kids.

Presumably, Senior Leadership Team members thought they knew best. Around the beginning of the academic year, I heard the same talking point in three different versions from people in positions of authority at JMU. They wanted people to stop speculating about possible closure, and they wanted people not involved in the COVID planning to withhold any criticism. Those speculating and criticizing, it was implied, did not have enough knowledge to support their comments. The  possible interpretation is that those in a position of authority, in the arena, so to speak, had some superior knowledge of the situation. If so, they should have used that knowledge to prevent the JMU outbreaks.

The Centers for Disease Control reported in August that actual COVID case counts might be as much as eight times the figures reported. That seemed to be true during the fall semester surge at JMU. It was possible to look at the demographics for the health district and pull out how many were Harrisonburg-Rockingham, and how many were in particular age groups, and make educated guesses about how much of the area’s steep rise in cases was related to JMU. And gossipy, anecdotally, second-hand — there was a sharp increase in cases among people 18-24 years old in the city. But the 18-24 stat was not included in VDH public numbers. They had case numbers for people age 10-19 and 20-29 but no further breakdown. (Excel downloaded the teen group, 10-19, as Oct. 19, and I had to reformat it every time. That the date was the birthday of a girlfriend I hadn’t seen since the ‘80s was, on a daily basis, weird.)

It was possible to glean from that kind of analysis that cases at JMU were under-reported on the school’s dashboard by as much as 40% , and probably at least 25%. This doesn’t mean anybody was lying. They just weren’t doing a good job of accurately reporting the numbers. It’s worth noting that the JMU dashboard was a communications project, not a public health project. The school bragged about including positive tests reported by students, without ever pointing out that the numbers were probably under-reported and wrong. Two numbers gave a vague idea of the daily case count, but they were two pages apart on the dashboard website.

JMU has, since former President Ron Carrier retired, gone further in the direction of distributed responsibility. If you asked who at JMU is in charge of re-opening, you might have been referred to one or more large committees. If you checked at the staff level, you’d find that many of us were expected to do certain things, but nobody was checking to see if we were doing them well.

The nature of any large university is that it attracts and finds places for a wide range of eccentrics, and that it tolerates a wide range of departments and disciplines doing the same thing in vastly different ways. That’s fine, if the issue is whether Potomac Hall and Converse Hall use the same soap and toilet paper, or whether a dozen or so web design classes are teaching the same thing, or whether CIS in COB duplicates CS in CISE. But if you’re talking about public safety and health concerns, standardization and consistency are paramount. Nobody at JMU had expertise in standardization generically, or in the specific area of managing response to a public health crisis.

The JMU administrators are not bad people. But I’m reminded of House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s observation, recalled by LBJ, about JFK’s “best and brightest.” “I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” I’d feel a whole lot better about JMU’s administrators if I knew one of them had to run a newsroom, a convention, a caucus, a council meeting, or a technology team. Having done those things doesn’t make me smarter than them. It gives me a different experience. That experience would not have let the JMU plan out the door.

JMU simply did not have a comprehensive plan to reopen the university — no measurable goal, no contingency plans, no coordination. The university had an administrative document to satisfy SCHEV. That didn’t mean no one was concerned about public health. But public health, hygiene, quarantine housing, transportation, and classroom configuration for social distancing are not the specialty or expertise of administrators whose jobs a year before might have been reviewing syllabi, writing press releases, or deciding when to replace white boards. Nobody at JMU, or in the world, had any real experience or expertise at reopening a campus the size of a small city in the middle of a pandemic. And the plans the university produced didn’t inspire confidence.

The plans don’t include real criteria for closing, or for opening. Harrisonburg City Public Schools had a published rubric  for returning to face-2-face education. JMU didn’t. HCPS had a vote on that rubric  in public session. JMU’s decisions were made in secret, by the Senior Leadership Team, with no input from the public, no public votes, and no information about how the decisions were made, or why. City School Board members are almost religious about obeying the Freedom of Information Act. Alger’s skirting of FOIA has been documented.

Alger or the leadership team might tell you they were not required to share their decision-making. But that’s a lawyer’s answer, not a leader’s. It’s a legal response, not a political one. It’s accurate, but tone-deaf.

The problems with managing COVID obviously began with dereliction of duty at the White House, which gave us federalism in its worst sense: 50 states going their own way based on a combination of politics, public health, and a gross misunderstanding of the meaning of freedom. Virginia’s system of higher education governance made things worse. Presidents answered to a board of visitors that got all its information from the president. The board of visitors answered, technically, to the governor, but realistically to no one unless something went horribly wrong.

The question going forward is whether the handling of COVID by Virginia’s public universities is ultimately judged horribly wrong or just an example of human foibles. Although some of us retired early because of the pandemic, it’s doubtful anyone will ever be fired for their actions. All of Virginia’s big schools did a bad job, and JMU’s was arguably the worst. Was it worth replacing a president, or cleaning house at the Senior Leadership Team? Will there be a penalty for Board of Visitors members who did, essentially, nothing?

Or do we simply say that it was their first pandemic, and they’re handling everything else just fine? Do we accept the university’s dismissive contention about blame?

“There’s nothing at blame here except for the virus.”

Addendum: JMU’s Covid numbers

Recapping the JMU Covid numbers is inexact, but possible. There are three numbers to use:

  • positive tests reported by the Virginia Department of Health for zip code 22807, the campus dorms;
  • positive tests reported on JMU’s Stop the Spread Dashboard from the University Health Center;
  • positive tests reported to the UHC but conducted elsewhere.

We can guess, if not assume, that most of the on-campus students with positive tests had them conducted at UHC. But we don’t know if most of them means 75 percent, 95 percent, or something outside those bounds. So we can also guess that some of the positive results for addresses at 22807 were conducted off-campus. We can’t know for sure what some of them adds up to. Students on or off campus may have failed or declined to report their positive tests to the UHC.

Within those parameters of uncertainty, there are numbers that we know. As of Wednesday morning, the last day of March, 2,355 JMU students had been tested positive at the UHC or had reported positive tests from elsewhere. Three-quarters of those were in the fall semester, and the other quarter in the spring semester, an ironic name for this grim winter.

The raw numbers are 1,763 in the fall, and 592 through the morning of March 31; 338 of those, 57% of the spring semester cases, came in March, and constituted 46% percent of the city-county March total of 738 through that date. Eleven percent of the student body, that the UHC knows about, has been infected. A quarter of the fall semester cases were on campus, at 22807, and 38% of the spring semester cases.

The JMU spring semester surge appears to have peaked. Two weeks ago, on March 16, the 7-day average of new cases peaked at 16. On March 31, it was 7.

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 “Inside the Bubble the Slightest Breeze Is a Threat”

  1. 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 off-site 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. And it didn’t relieve the university of the requirement to report positive tests it administered – or did they report them with off-campus addresses?

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    “All of Virginia’s big schools did a bad job, and JMU’s was arguably the worst. Was it worth replacing a president, or cleaning house at the Senior Leadership Team? Will there be a penalty for Board of Visitors members who did, essentially, nothing?”

    Of course there won’t be a penalty. The only thing that would cause a penalty to be imposed would be the real possibility of elected politicians losing their office because of the incompetence of their appointees. Northam can’t run this November so you can’t hold him accountable. The House of Delegates is up for re-election but the following “protections” making holding them accountable a challenge:

    1. Limited media coverage of anything in Virginia, especially anything critical of the ruling party. People just don’t know.
    2. Off year elections which keep turnout low.
    3. Unlimited campaign contributions which make challenging and incumbent very hard.
    4. A huge level of partisan gerrymandering (some say Virginia has the worst in the nation).
    5. A broken opposition (Republican) party mired in chaos and confusion.
    6. No recall capability for citizens (In my opinion, Northam would have been gone through recall after the blackface photos came out, Justin Fairfax possibly as well).

    Virginia’s liberal Democrat ruling class is not going to take accountability for their own appointees under our existing structure of government.

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