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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

ISU Board OKs Up To $3.3 Million For COVID Testing; RA Dismissals Contested

The Illinois State University Board of Trustees met virtually on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020 to discuss COVID-19 issues.

Illinois State University administrators received authorization to spend up to $3.3 million this semester for COVID-19 testing of asymptomatic students, with the ISU board of trustees approving the plan Wednesday during a virtual meeting.

Also Wednesday, ISU President Larry Dietz responded to the dismissal of two Hewett Hall resident assistants, after one tested positive earlier this week. ISU announced the positive case Tuesday, but hadn’t identified the student as an RA.

At the board meeting, an ISU parent and two ISU faculty members familiar with the situation complained to trustees about ISU’s handling of the matter, saying the university left the COVID victim to fend for himself, with no support.

Dietz wouldn’t comment directly on the personnel matter, but said he planned to follow up with student affairs officials. Trustees didn’t respond directly to the public comments during the meeting, but ISU board Chairperson Julie Annette Jones encouraged the commenters to email the board with more information.

The board’s vote in favor of testing on Wednesday doesn’t mean the full $3.3 million, to come from general revenue funds and available grants, will be needed, said Dietz. 

“We only pay for what we use,” said Dietz.

But it allows ISU to proactively address testing needs on campus. The surveillance testing is used to find surges of the disease among those with no symptoms, he said. The funding will cover roughly 1,500 of the surveillance tests per week, or 30,000 this fall.

This style of test is offered to students showing no symptoms, he said, noting experts tracking COVID have found student populations often are asymptomatic.

Pekin-based Reditus Labs, which will charge ISU about $110 for each test, is expected to soon set up some mobile sites on campus, with the first one planned on North Street, near The Alamo II campus bookstore.

“The number of tests will vary, based on the number of cases” being diagnosed on campus, said Dietz, adding the federal Centers for Disease Control do not recommend mass testing. But ISU simply wants to make it available as a way to keep the campus safer. This asymptomatic testing will be for students only, with ISU focusing on students living in the residence halls first, he said. 

Provost Aondover Tarhule told WGLT last week the goal is to test 3% of the student population on a regular basis. That would be about 600 students from a regular-year student census of about 20,000 people. However, many students have opted to do remote-learning from home, so there is a smaller on-campus population this fall, Dietz said Wednesday.

ISU students showing COVID-19 symptoms are provided with a different type of test, said Dietz. ISU has signed separate agreements for that kind of testing with both Reditus and Carle BroMenn Medical Center. A student who tests positive for COVID will be asked to leave campus, and quarantine somewhere else until they are healthy, Dietz added.

Faculty and staff are encouraged to use the testing site at the Interstate Center in Bloomington, he said, while employees who are symptomatic shouldn’t come to campus.

The availability of widespread testing has been an issue that campus safety planners have been addressing since last spring’s pandemic began, said Dietz. 

The university hopes later this fall to partner with the University of Illinois on its new saliva-based COVID-19 tests. Currently, Dietz said such testing can’t be used away from U of I campuses without U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The price per test for the U of I method is only about $2. Dietz said he and other Illinois campus presidents heard an update Wednesday about U of I’s saliva test, and the Urbana campus is pursuing the FDA approval.

Resident Assistants let go in COVID-case

On the RA issue, the university came under fire from one of the resident assistant's parents, and two ISU professors.

Parent Matt Quinones, of Berwyn, criticized how the university handled the situation involving his daughter and her friend, a student who tested positive for the virus. 

Quinones said he emailed the Office of the President, relaying his concerns about his daughter’s dismissal as an RA at Hewett Hall. In particular, he said he was upset that his daughter and her co-worker were fired, rehired, and asked to resign instead. His daughter, a junior, tested negative for the virus, he said. The pair of students say they met for about 20 minutes in a dorm room -- 5 minutes over the allowed time to share space. After the friend tested positive the two RAs decided to tell their supervisor of the situation, he said.

“My overall issue has been with the inconsistency of the testing policy,” he said. 

He was concerned with how some student workers were required to test, while others weren't, as well as how ISU housing officials required the COVID victim to move out while other students and families were moving into the dorms on Sunday. Quinones said he also was distressed that while his daughter had a family support system, the student who tested positive was left to fend for himself with no university assistance.

“They offered nothing to these people, not to my daughter -- no housing, no quarantine. The young man in question is scrambling now as we speak to find suitable housing,” he told trustees. 

Quinones raised the issue that if ISU doesn’t require students to test prior to arriving at the campus, why do they hold the RAs to a different standard.

Faculty members Fusun Akman of ISU’s Math Department and Carie Anna Cortad of ISU’s Special Education Department also expressed criticism over the situation.

Both said they were concerned with ISU veering from its core values, noting the two RAs and ISU student workers were held to a different standard than general students regarding COVID.

“I’m calling on Housing to rethink these selective, cruel and punitive policies,” said Akman, reiterating the  RA diagnosed with COVID did not have a home or family situation to support him, and “was put out on the sidewalk to fend for himself,” with no university assistance.

Cortad said the student who tested positive was a senior, and beginning his third year as an RA. “He was left without room and board and a stipend,” she said, adding that he had no car, and was denied quarantine housing because he was told he resigned. 

“Residential life kicked out a student during a pandemic,” she said, with her voice rising in anger. 

“The punishment that these two RAs suffered does not fit the crime,” she said, calling both situations grave injustices.

Other than board chair Jones offering Quinones the board’s email address, no ISU officials responded to the speakers at the meeting. The ISU administration declined to comment on the cases, citing it as a personnel matter.

But Dietz noted after the meeting that he’d learned more about the situation while listening to Quinone’s public comments, and that he intended to gather more information. 

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