Guidance for Faculty on COVID-19 Transmission and the Contact Tracing Process
Date: September 27, 2021
To: NYU Faculty
From: Katherine Fleming, Provost
Dr. Carlo Ciotoli, Exec. Lead, NYU COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team
We are writing to provide clarification about COVID-19 transmission in the classroom and the contact tracing process, and to provide guidance to faculty in responding to students who disclose a positive COVID-19 test, need to quarantine, or indicate that they are sick. Here is additional guidance that may be helpful to you.
Who responds to positive cases and how does NYU’s contact tracing work?
The NYU COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team (CPRT) is responsible for responding to positive cases, which includes the function of contact tracing and determining additional health and safety protocols, such as quarantine, testing, notifications, switching to remote classes, as appropriate.
Here’s a brief overview of the process:
- Notification and isolation
If a student or employee tests positive through NYU Binx or Bioreference, both the individual and the CPRT automatically receive notification of the test result. Students or employees who get a positive result from a COVID-19 test conducted elsewhere (for example, at Langone or an urgent care center) are required to complete the reporting form to notify the CPRT (in the event students tell faculty about a positive result from testing external to NYU, faculty should urge all students to complete the reporting form).
Students and employees who receive a positive test result are instructed to stay home or go home immediately and begin isolating themselves away from others. Their NYU ID cards will be deactivated, and they are not permitted in NYU buildings (except their apartments or rooms for those who live on-campus) or to participate in University-sponsored activities on or off-campus. CPRT reaches out to the student or employee to review instructions on the rules and requirements of isolation. In the case of residential students, additional protocols regarding relocation and meals may be arranged as appropriate.
- Intake and contact tracing
As part of the intake process, the CPRT will ask the student or employee who tested positive a series of questions about their interactions with other NYU students and employees on and off-campus, including their participation in classes, events, and other University sponsored activities as well as social activities that involved members of the NYU community, during the time period that they may have been infectious. From this questioning, the CPRT will notify—without revealing the name of the positive case or details of the exposure—those NYU students and employees who meet specific public health criteria for being at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19; these individuals are called “close contacts”.
These close contacts will be instructed by CPRT to follow important health and safety protocols, based on their vaccination status and whether they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Some who are notified by CPRT will be instructed to quarantine; however, most will not need to quarantine and will be permitted to participate in in-person activities, such as class and work.
It is important to know that—given our high rates of vaccination, required masking, and other safety measures—most people who are in the same space with a COVID-positive student or faculty member (even while infectious) are not at increased risk for COVID-19 infection and therefore do not need to follow any additional safety protocols. For example, being in a class (a setting in which masks are being worn) with a COVID-positive person does not automatically make everyone else in the class a close contact, and does not require that the class must turn to remote instruction.
- Clearance to return to regular activities
Based on CDC guidelines and clinical findings, the CPRT advises employees and students who were instructed to isolate or quarantine when they may return to in-person work, class, housing, and activities. Their ID cards are reactivated once they meet criteria for clearance.
The CPRT closely monitors data for trends and clusters. For example, if multiple cases within an academic program are detected, CPRT will conduct a deeper investigation into the chain of transmission. It’s important to highlight that multiple cases within a single class does, on occasion, occur; however, CPRT investigations have repeatedly determined that it was activities outside the classroom in which students were not wearing masks (e.g., live together, study together, socialize together) that was the cause. This phenomenon makes sense: students who are in the same academic program and classes are more likely to develop friendships and engage together in other types of non-academic activities.
Notifications to faculty
- Faculty will be notified if their interactions with the positive case meets specific public health criteria for being at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
- If a significant concern is identified in a class, appropriate faculty and administrators will receive additional communications from CPRT including an action plan. If public health considerations indicate that there’s a need for a class to stop meeting in person, CPRT will reach out to appropriate faculty and administrators.
What should a faculty member do if a student informs them that they tested positive or have symptoms?
We appreciate the commitment faculty have to upholding rigor in their classes; however, students electing to come to class when they feel sick because they worry about adverse impacts on their grades conflicts with a key mitigation measure for our community: persuading the sick to stay home.
Accordingly, faculty should:
- encourage students who are sick to stay home. Symptoms of COVID-19 can be similar to those of other respiratory infections. Staying home while sick prevents the spread of infections to other people and reduces the likelihood of additional absences or a class disruption.
- instruct students to complete the reporting form to notify CPRT if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
- use one of the strategies that the Provost’s Office is recommending to support students who temporarily cannot participate in in-person classes due to illness or isolation/quarantine (or employ your school's customary practice for students who miss class due to illness), bearing in mind that the absence may be more extended than is usually the case when a student is ill.
- reassure students that absences due to any type of illness or COVID-19 will not have a negative academic impact.
Faculty are not permitted to:
- ask for details about the student’s COVID-19 status or illness (or any health information such as vaccination status, test results, diagnosis, symptoms).
- ask if an absence is COVID-19 related or ask for documentation of a healthcare visit or “doctor’s note” to excuse the absence.
- cancel class or transition a class to remote instruction unless directed by CPRT and in consultation with the school Dean and/or Department Chair.
- make announcements about a case and/or make health recommendations related to testing, quarantine, isolation, or cleaning.
What’s the risk of COVID-19 transmission in traditional classrooms?
The risk of COVID-19 transmission is low in settings in which there are high rates of vaccination and universal masking. Both of these conditions are true in NYU classrooms: NYU has very high vaccination rates (over 98%) among its students and masks are required in all indoor settings such as classrooms. NYU’s data from its contact tracing efforts provides further evidence that our classrooms are not a primary source of transmission; when transmission happens within our community (and NYU has a relatively low case positivity rate - below 1.5%), it occurs in settings where people are not universally masked. Consultation with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene validated our experiences, as well as the multi-layered approach we are taking to mitigate risk in the classroom and across NYU, which includes:
- A vaccination requirement
- Universal masking indoors
- Robust testing
- Encouraging people who are sick to stay home
- Ensuring air handling systems are in line with CDC guidelines (if you are encountering a classroom that is too warm or cold, see this communication)
- Restricting non-essential visitors from coming on campus
- Strict on-campus event requirements
- Strict requirements about eating
- A robust mechanism for the NYU community to report non-compliance with COVID-19 policies
We realize that just as the transition to remote instruction posed novel challenges and questions for faculty in leading their classes, so, too, does our broadly resuming in-person instruction this semester. We recognize, as well—notwithstanding our very high rates of vaccination, our mask requirement, and other safety protocols—the unease that some faculty continue to feel uneasy.
We are grateful for the dedication you have shown to the students and their academic progress. We hope this information will help answer some of the questions that have been on the minds of faculty.
The NYU Returns website is the University’s online hub for COVID-19-related information. Much of the information in this communication can also be found on the Cases and Contact Tracing page.