The Breeze wasn’t provided with COVID-19 case numbers from JMU until after the university revealed its number of infected students to the Daily News-Record while keeping The Breeze in the dark despite multiple requests — in-person, over the phone and through the FOIA system — for information.
After DNR reporter Pete DeLea tweeted at 5:47 p.m. that JMU had 10 students test positively for the coronavirus as of Monday — one of which was tested in the University Health Center, and nine of which were self-reported by students who were tested at off-campus locations — The Breeze called Caitlyn Read, university spokesperson and director of communications, at 6:30 p.m. to ask about the lack of transparency with The Breeze. Read said that JMU wasn’t keeping information from The Breeze by giving DeLea information first, but it was because JMU has had “really good working relationships” with DeLea “for years” and because DeLea directly asked Monday that he received the information first. The Breeze repeatedly asked for the data prior to DeLea’s request.
BREAKING: JMU administrators report 10 students have tested positive for COVID-19. One result came through the university health center and nine were tested off campus and self reported to JMU.— Pete DeLea (@pdeleaNEWS) August 24, 2020
“Having a relationship with that reporter and having them ask directly, ‘Do y’all have cases?’ they got the numbers,” Read said. “So, I mean, that’s how that all played out.”
When DeLea asked JMU for the case numbers Monday, The Breeze had already asked for numbers a week prior and on three separate occasions. But when The Breeze met with Read and Mary-Hope Vass, deputy spokesperson and assistant director of media relations, last week and proposed the idea of the investigations editor, Jake Conley, calling daily to receive COVID-19 numbers, they both said the data couldn’t be verified or given out that way. Instead, they said, The Breeze would need to rely on a forthcoming dashboard for the information.
The Breeze will continue to demand transparency from the university. Under Virginia FOIA laws, public bodies — including public universities — are legally required to respond to a FOIA request within five days, and the fifth day for the first FOIA submitted by The Breeze is Thursday, Aug. 27. A large and quickly growing number of universities have already begun to release daily reports of case numbers in their communities, which constitute public information.
Contact the news desk at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.