Concerns over the adequacy and transparency of McGill’s COVID-19 contract tracing system led the Law Students Association (LSA) to organize their own initiative at the beginning of the semester. The project, which collected entries through a Google form, accumulated only a couple of submissions before it was shut down by the McGill administration over concerns that it would disrupt McGill’s internal COVID-19 contact tracing procedures.
The student-run initiative began as a rumour, circulated on a Facebook group, that students had tested positive in law classrooms. Having not been notified of these cases by McGill’s COVID-19 Case Management Group (CMG) and being frustrated by the lack of concern about the safety of their classrooms, Emma Sitland, 3L explained that the LSA became motivated to start their own initiative.
“It was created as an immediate response to student concerns,” Sitland said. “The Law Students Association said, ‘okay, if there’s going to be COVID positive cases in class and McGill’s not going to tell you, we’re going to try to let you know.’”
Sitland emphasized that the initiative arose out of student concern for lenient COVID-19 health measures on campus.
“I think it is great that the LSA [organized a contact tracing initiative],” Sitland said. “I think it is an excellent example of student mobilization and solidarity, but it’s not their job. As a student organization, as a bunch of volunteers, they do not have the capacity to do that, they do not have the expertise to do that [….] It should be McGill [administration] who is actually taking initiative in doing this.”
In an email to The McGill Tribune, McGill’s media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle stressed that, in keeping with McGill’s public health requirements, contact tracing on McGill campus should be done through the university, hence why McGill shut down the LSA’s project.
“McGill continues to work closely with public health officials to adopt policies and put into practice measures to protect students, staff and faculty,” Mazerolle wrote. “Universities in Quebec have been mandated by public health authorities to do contact tracing and follow-up internally, and therefore it is essential that members of our community use our McGill process for reporting cases. Contact tracing is handled by McGill and can only be done if all cases are reported properly.”
Richard Gold, a professor in the Faculty of Law, wrote in an email to the Tribune that McGill’s lack of transparency in contact tracing runs contrary to its mission as an institution.
“McGill seems to be pursuing a strategy of minimum communication and transparency,” Gold wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This is a cynical position that is not in line with the mission of McGill to serve the public. In the absence of any transparency […] students [and staff] were driven to do something to protect each other. The mere fact that students were driven to [organize their own contact tracing] is an illustration of the failure of the central administration to be transparent and truthful.”
In an email sent on Sept. 22, Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau clarified McGill’s procedure for alerting students of COVID-19 cases in classrooms. Its procedure currently details that all students will be notified by email if a person who tested positive for COVID-19 sat in the classroom within 48 of developing symptoms.
In the same email, McGill mentioned that they received reports from professors that students who tested positive contacted them, but those in classes with positive COVID-19 cases had not received notifications. Labeau explained in an email to the Tribune that this may have been because either the student was not in class 48 hours prior to developing symptoms or testing positive, the student may not have reported their case to McGill, or the student may have received a negative test.
To date, McGill remains the single channel for contact tracing on campus.