Click the button below to see our presentation of the survey response data and meeting notes from our meeting with DBBS leadership.
- Majority of students want the eligibility for testing to be expanded. The restricted testing has created feelings that students and medical campus employees are not as valued, compared to undergraduates.
- Many students report feeling pressured to perform at pre-COVID levels despite COVID-19 policies, which negatively affects mental health of students.
- Institution needs more oversight enforcing lab compliance to COVID-19 policies; students, who are in vulnerable positions, often feel uncomfortable confronting their PIs or other individuals
- Students need clear communication outlining COVID-19 policies for DBBS students, and what rules apply to DBBS students. Because PhD students can be considered either employees or students or both, depending on circumstance, there is mixed messaging on what policies apply to students.
- Medical campus lacks indoor spaces that could be used to eat or drink water throughout the day.
Survey respondent demographic
We had a total of 153 DBBS students take the survey, and an additional 24 non-DBBS respondents. The survey results shown here represent analysis of DBBS responses only. Respondents represented 26 different departments, with an even distribution amongst advanced and early-stage PhD students (above or below GR3).
Response towards university’s COVID-19 policies
Overall, majority of DBBS students express dissatisfaction with university’s policies regarding COVID-19. When asked about COVID-19 policies on the medical campus, 2/3 of the respondents believe that we need more oversight from the administration. Additionally, multiple students expressed that communication about COVID-19 policies is unclear and confusing, due to differences in campus-specific policies and differences in testing access for students and employees. 30% of the respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to ramp-up research. While not a majority, this represents a significant proportion of the DBBS student population.
The dissatisfaction with current COVID-19 policies or the administration’s decision to ramp-up research parallels the concern about COVID-19 transmission on campus, expressed by 75% of the students. Another 30% of students also report feeling uncomfortable with being on campus. Causes for concerns, as reported by multiple respondents, include:
- Varying level of compliance by labs (including density, exaggerated reporting of “essential” or COVID-related research activity)
- Lack of oversight regarding lab non-compliance
- Restricted eligibility criteria for COVID-19 testing
- Lack of surveillance testing
- Varying levels of compliance by individuals (including non-research staff and visitors)
- On-campus screenings are easily deceivable and avoidable
- Lack of transparency
Additionally, many students report experiencing increased pressure regarding productivity, which may stem from PIs, thesis committees, or students themselves. Out of 28 respondents that expanded upon research environment and COVID-19 policies, 16 students reported that PIs are not always understanding of lowered productivity stemming from reduced lab activity. This can create conflicting expectations, as well as increased pressure to work at pre-COVID capacity at the cost of safety:
“On paper we are expected to follow social distancing and to limit time idling/doing computer work in the lab, but then we are also being told we are not in lab enough. they’re very conflicting and frustrating expectations.” – anonymous respondent
“[PIs] don’t acknowledge that it’s difficult to follow the rules and still achieve things like large multi day in vivo experiments or experiments that require 15+ hour days without bending those rules. So there’s really no choice but to work at pre Covid levels to deliver.” – anonymous respondent
Qualitative responses suggest that the stigma surrounding lowered productivity negatively affects mental well-being of many students and may drive students to continue working at pre-COVID levels despite restrictions.
Finally, 20 respondents also specifically pointed out that many research labs and facilities currently lack space and accommodation that allows students to eat or drink water throughout the day in a safe way.
“I know they claim that on-campus transmission has been low *as long as people follow mask and distancing guidelines*, but it is frequently not possible to maintain distance in the labs or desk areas (especially when training new students or lab members). People also remove their masks in shared office spaces or lab rooms if they are alone at the moment. If they were positive, those aerosols can linger in the air for hours with poor ventilation, waiting for the next person to sit in that office.” – anonymous respondent
Response towards institution’s policies on asymptomatic individuals or confirmed exposure
Majority of respondents expressed frustration with the institution’s testing policy. The strict eligibility criteria for testing poses a challenge for obtaining tests. Only 22% of DBBS respondents have requested a test since the beginning of the pandemic. Of the 14 students who requested testing after exposure to COVID-19 patient, only two were approved for actual testing. Multiple students who volunteered as poll workers requested tests, as they were in contact with hundreds of people indoors, including people that were unmasked and/or coughing. However, none were approved. Additionally, some students that were symptomatic for COVID-19 had to go off-campus to get tested because they were asked to “wait a few days” when they requested tests.
Furthermore, there is mixed expectations on whether students should self-isolate following exposure. Some students reported that they were asked to come into lab even after exposure to symptomatic individuals, because they were asymptomatic and there are no rules dictating that they should stay home. Similarly, multiple people reported that when a member of a lab tested positive for COVID-19, labs were not shut down nor were remaining lab members asked to self-isolate.
The barriers that graduate students face in obtaining tests despite being considered “essential workers” are in stark contrast with the testing policy for undergraduates, who have access to regular surveillance testing. In fact, as of November 25, 2020, 40% of all new COVID-19 cases on the Danforth campus since October 1 were detected via surveillance testing. This discrepancy in policy has caused a significant number of students feeling that they are unheard or undervalued by the university.
“Having access to testing wouldn’t make me behave irresponsibly; it would give me peace of mind and make me feel like WashU cared about my health and the health of people working in labs.” – anonymous respondent
Students can anonymously report their concerns regarding university’s COVID-19 policies at https://covid19.wustl.edu/health-safety/covid-policy-concerns-portal/, University’s compliance hotline (314-362-4998), or through the Anonymous Compliance Reporting (Email),