Professors and Students Say UM's COVID Dashboard Is Misleading

The Mahoney-Pearson dormitory is used to quarantine sick UM students.
The Mahoney-Pearson dormitory is used to quarantine sick UM students. Photo by Chad Cooper/Flickr
Mere days after fall classes began at the University of Miami, students and employees demanded more information from the school when rumors began circulating that some students had already been quarantined with COVID-19.

On Monday — one week after the first day of class — the university finally published a COVID-19 dashboard, announcing that 141 students had tested positive. But some members of the UM community aren't satisfied with the school's response. A number of students and professors say the dashboard is misleading because it fails to display the cumulative number of cases, providing only the weekly totals. 

Alberto Cairo, the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at UM's School of Communication, expressed his concerns to UM president Julio Frenk in a tweet yesterday. Cairo notes that the dashboard's use of the word "total" is misleading because it does not reflect the total number of cases since the campus was reopened.

"These graphs display data just for the current week. They must display all data since reopening," Cairo wrote. "Otherwise, it's cherry-picking."
Cairo, author of the book How Charts Lie, tells New Times that he posts similar critiques regularly on social media and that the dashboard's failures are not unusual.

"We certainly should not infer ill intentions," he cautions. "Sometimes people make mistakes just because they are working under a lot of pressure or very fast."

Others are upset with how the university is choosing to relay COVID statistics to the community. Nikhil DeLaHaye, a former undergraduate and graduate student, has been highly critical of UM's decision to reopen.

"The current presentation of data is confusing at best, and dishonest and misleading at worst," he says.

DeLaHaye, who obtained a master's degree in health administration from UM in 2018, is attempting to dissuade alumni from donating to the university until the campus is closed and policies are changed.

"The infection of 141 students and hospitalization of faculty was completely avoidable and is a resignation-worthy failure of leadership," DeLayHaye wrote in an August 24 email to President Frenk, his staff, and the alumni association. "I speak out of professional responsibility as a Public Health professional. The current policy of having students on campus in any capacity is an absolute danger waiting to happen."
According to the dashboard, 94 students were in quarantine and 64 were in isolation for the week of August 17 to August 25. Isolation is for students who have tested positive for COVID, while quarantine is for those who may have been exposed to the virus. Those in quarantine are permitted to stay in their dorm room, but those who test positive must stay in a designated isolation room. The university has more than 100 single-occupancy isolation rooms at the Mahoney-Pearson dorm.

The dashboard also shows that one faculty member is hospitalized with COVID. The cumulative total of cases since August 16 is around 200.

"No number is good, but it is not surprising," Frenk stated in a press release. "If you look at the number of tests, those that gave a positive result are still a relatively low proportion."

Many professors critical of the dashboard point to other universities that have been more transparent with statistics. On Twitter, UM's University Employee Alliance highlighted what it considers to be a "real dashboard" from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which uses a platform that includes positivity rates, a day-by-day breakdown of positive cases, the size of outbreaks in each residential hall, and cumulative totals. (UNC-Chapel Hill closed its campus and returned to online instruction after 130 students tested positive within the first week of reopening.)

While other universities have elected to make classes online-only, UM is sticking by its commitment to keeping students on campus to hold in-person and hybrid instruction.

"I think it's absolutely irresponsible and dangerous and shows a callous disregard for the lives of students, faculty, and staff," DeLaHaye insists. "It completely defies all public health logic and tarnishes the public health degree that I received from the institution. If they remain open, cases will spread exponentially, and there is a risk of the area becoming a super-spreading site."

Frenk has said procedures are in place in the event positive cases rise to the point of having to close a dorm or the campus, but he remains confident the university can stay open for the semester. He has yet to declare a threshold that would dictate closure is necessary.

The fact that nearly 150 students have already tested positive shouldn't come as a shock, given that UM students have been caught all over social media defying social-distancing guidelines. Before classes even started, a viral TikTok video that was later deleted depicted students gathering unmasked in a dorm room, proudly showing how many were packed inside.

"When I heard we had 140 cases, I wasn't surprised at all," says senior Jesse Lieberman. "What I think is more surprising is that they actually released the numbers, and if I was a betting person, I would bet that 140 is low. We have seen this play out across the country in tons of different schools. The numbers are going to just keep going up."

Frenk acknowledged in a community-wide email that the new positive cases reflect "the early expressions of unacceptable behavior that some students engaged in." The university is handling a number of disciplinary cases of students breaking public-health guidelines. Some have already been dismissed from campus and sent home for the remainder of the semester.

Although the university has implemented a 10 p.m. curfew for all residential students to return to their dorms, some have rented Airbnbs in Miami, Miami Beach, and Key West to throw parties with friends. As a result, the school's vice president for student affairs, Patricia Whitley, sent out an email imploring parents to talk to their grown children about following the rules.

"We are sadly receiving reports that upperclassman and freshman resident students are renting AIR B and B's in the Keys and in Miami Beach with groups of UM students for extended periods of time to evade our mask, social distancing and curfew requirements," reads Whitley's email. "These selfish actions risk our entire U reopening plan."

In addition to breaking UM guidelines, such gatherings violate Airbnb's own standards. Hoping to prevent super-spreader gatherings, the vacation-rental platform announced a party ban on August 20.

"Today we're announcing a global ban on all parties and events at Airbnb listings, including a cap on occupancy at 16," the company's statement read. "This party ban applies to all future bookings on Airbnb and it will remain in effect indefinitely until further notice."

Miami Beach, under emergency orders, has also banned short-term vacation rentals, meaning some students are also violating a local ordinance.

Despite other schools opting to begin the school year with remote learning, UM designed a reopening plan that would allow students, faculty, and staff to return to campus for a hybrid approach, where half of the class attends in-person one day and online the next. Students are assigned a seat for their in-person classes to allow the university to implement contact tracing if necessary.

But not all students are confident in the hybrid teaching method.

"I don't blame the professors, but the technology just isn't there. The school would have been better off just focusing on online education and making it work for everyone," says Lieberman, an economics major. "They are trying to present to two different audiences at once, and they usually forget about one of them. I don't blame them as much as I blame the school for trying to force this unnatural hybrid system on everyone."

Lieberman also worries that some of his fellow students might not be taking COVID protocols seriously, meaning he may be at risk just by sitting in the classroom.

"Whenever you are in class, half the time you aren't six feet apart from people, and you have no idea where the other person has been over the weekend," he says. "I was sitting next to one guy who was wearing a shirt of a frat that threw a party over the weekend that supposedly had people get COVID at it."
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Naomi Feinstein is a contributor for Miami New Times. She is a rising senior at the University of Miami, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the managing editor of the UM student newspaper, the Miami Hurricane.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein