Northwestern revises Campus Activity Levels framework after returning to in-person classes


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

An illustration showing the original and revised definitions of the yellow activity level.

Alex Harrison, Senior Staffer

Northwestern revised its definition of the Campus Activity Levels framework after resuming in-person classes, changing the protocol about the current level of COVID-19 on campus. 

First introduced in Fall Quarter 2020, Campus Activity Levels are color-coded statuses indicating the safety of increasing in-person campus activities based on external and internal factors. The four levels are green, yellow, orange and red, with green indicating the most in-person activities and red indicating the most restrictive policies. 

On Jan. 14, the University reported 686 new positive test results for the period of Jan. 7 through Jan. 13 and downgraded the activity level from orange to yellow. During this time, the Campus Activity Levels webpage’s definition of yellow read “no increases in in-person activities.” 

On the same day, Vice President of Operations Luke Figora announced in an email to students that in-person classes would resume on Jan. 18, bringing an end to the University’s Wildcat Wellness period. Figora cited “Northwestern’s extensive health protocols and the relative safety of our highly vaccinated community” as factors in the decision.

Many community members were concerned by the announcement, and students launched a petition to extend virtual classes that garnered 1,500 signatures. McCormick Prof. Luis Amaral, a Daily op-ed contributor, said he disagreed with the move to in-person because of the risk it poses to vulnerable community members.

“I have many friends and collaborators that work either in emergency rooms or in critical care, and I have never seen them as burned out as they have been during this period,” Amaral said. “By increasing the number of infected people, we are putting the most defenseless at risk.”

Following Figora’s announcement, some students pointed to the conflict between the decision to return to in-person classes and activities and the level of activity indicated as safe by the yellow classification. Sometime during the following week, NU updated the webpage with a revised definition of yellow reading “changes in in-person activity.” The webpage has not been updated since. 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Jon Yates explained the activity levels were originally written to reflect a deterioration of COVID-19 safety, necessitating an updated definition for when conditions improved.

“In December, we moved from green to yellow and then to orange with the arrival of the omicron variant,” Yates said. “As the health landscape improved on campus in mid-January and we shifted back to yellow, we edited the definition to more accurately address movement in the other direction.”

The change was made without a public announcement or indication on the webpage. Yates said the University will “continue to assess and adjust our tools for accurately and transparently communicating with the University community.”

Amaral said the University has failed to accurately present testing data and campus safety levels throughout the pandemic, and he said the revision of the activity level framework is another instance of this.

“There are some of us at the University that deal with presenting data and could have told them how to do things properly, to build confidence,” Amaral said. “It’s embarrassing to me that the University, with the kind of expertise that exists here, was not able to make use of that expertise to avoid rookie mistakes.”

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Twitter: @alexhairysun

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