No emails and no information: NU takes down COVID-19 webpage

Catherine Buchaniec, Reporter

When the pandemic first hit Illinois, Northwestern published a webpage dedicated to keeping track of the number of COVID-19 cases on campus. Today, the webpage cannot be found, leaving the NU community largely unaware of any new cases of coronavirus and deaths affiliated with the University.

The change is part of what some students are saying is an intentional decision to help students stay ignorant of the potential dangers of returning to campus in the fall.

Originally, students, faculty and staff were alerted to new University-affiliated COVID-19 cases through an email from NU’s Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson, as well as the updated coronavirus webpage. However, the University stopped sending email updates regarding new cases in mid-March.

Instead, NU opted to only update its coronavirus webpage as additional individuals reported positive tests — a practice that concluded before the end of Spring Quarter.

Weinberg junior Kelly Miller, who has contributed to The Daily in the past, said she used to check the coronavirus webpage each day as soon as the first confirmed case was reported but did not know the University had taken the webpage down.

“I think that it’s a huge issue with transparency,” Miller said. “Students have a right to know when they come back to campus whether or not there are confirmed cases on campus.”

When asked why the University chose to take down the webpage, University spokesperson Bob Rowley said in a statement to The Daily that the tracker was never intended to be a long-term tool.

“Because the University has developed and been utilizing robust, comprehensive contact tracing protocols, those who are at risk of contracting the virus from known positive cases are informed quickly, making the online case tracker unnecessary,” Rowley said.

Rowley added that more information on the procedures and approaches related to the return to campus will be coming out this week and later in the summer.

However, some students have said the move to only alert those directly impacted by positive cases creates a false sense of security for the rest of the NU community.

Medill senior Amar Shabeeb said she noticed when the University took down the coronavirus webpage and thinks the University did so in order to make students feel more secure about Fall Quarter.

“The University wants us to come back in the fall,” Shabeeb said. “If they don’t have concrete evidence or proof that coronavirus is affecting our campus and the Northwestern community, you might feel more secure and less hesitant about returning to campus in the fall.”

When the webpage still existed, it did not list any COVID-19 deaths affiliated with the University.

Riad Ismat, a visiting scholar at the Buffett Institute who taught courses in the Theatre, Performance Studies and Radio/Television/Film departments, died May 13 due to complications related to COVID-19. He was 73.

Following his death, the Middle East and North African Studies Program published a tribute on their department website. The University, however, did not publish any information related to Ismat on the coronavirus webpage or on the University’s COVID-19 response page.

Shabeeb was not aware that a University-affiliated death had occurred. She said that the University’s failure to tell students about the loss of life is horrible.

“It is completely awful that a person who has affected the Northwestern community so greatly had nothing to memorialize his memory,” Shabeeb said. “I think that it also deviates from protocol. In the past, they have always announced when a professor has passed away or when a student has passed away.”

The University typically sends emails to the NU community informing students of a campus-related death, usually within a few days of the person’s passing. No such email was sent out following Ismat’s death.

In a statement to The Daily, Rowley highlighted the MENA program’s tribute and said Ismat’s passing was a heartbreaking and tragic loss for the NU community.

“He was a true man of letters, a prolific author, a tireless contributor and a great teacher who championed the importance of art, theatre and literature,” Rowley said. “He will be sorely and dearly missed by all who knew him.”

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