Last week, I wrote to you, our readers, about the writ of mandamus petition I filed against JMU on behalf of The Breeze. The drive behind the filing was simple: As journalists, our job is to pursue truth, hold officials accountable and serve the public interest.
At 9 a.m., Aug. 26, I stood up in front of Judge Bruce D. Albertson in Courtroom C of the Rockingham Circuit Court and, serving as my own attorney, presented our case against the university. Case data by location is public data and is critical to allowing the public to make informed decisions about their health.
After a year of run-arounds and circled questions, the truth finally came out plainly. Jack Knight, JMU’s lead university counsel, said in court that the reason the university couldn’t comply with The Breeze’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was because — quite simply — JMU wasn’t tracking COVID-19 case data by location in a centralized location or manner during the period we were asking for. That period, Aug. 17, 2020, through Sept. 16, 2020, is the window in which JMU saw its largest case spike — 1,375 cases, concurrent with a 60% positivity rate within the university’s testing regime.
That’s a win, in our eyes. While it may not be one on paper — our FOIA request is technically invalid, as FOIA can’t be used to compel a public body to create records that don’t exist — it’s definitive information that the public did not have before, and it’s one more step toward accountability of the JMU leadership.
The second half of my petition was focused on the window of time which the university has now agreed to release this kind of data on. My argument is that a 30-day delay makes any decision-making ability by those impacted moot. For people to make informed decisions, their information must not only be accurate but timely. I believe, as I said in court, that the university’s argument that a 30-day window is required for individual students to not be identified when we publish the data is illegitimate.
Judge Albertson has 15 days from the date of the hearing to issue a final ruling, and we’ll be publishing what that ruling is when we receive it.
I’ve been saying it, and I’ll keep saying it. This still matters. While JMU’s case count has stayed decently low so far in this first week of the semester, we have around 2,000 unvaccinated students who have signed an “Assumption of Risk” form to come back unvaccinated, and 1,500 haven’t submitted any data about their vaccination status at all, according to JMU’s “Stop the Spread” vaccination dashboard. We also have around 80 employees who have submitted the “Assumption of Risk” form, and just under 650 others who haven’t submitted anything about their status, again from the same dashboard.
While those certainly don’t constitute a majority of the JMU community, those numbers have power and mean we need to continue to be vigilant. And on top of that, we need to continue to hold our university’s administration accountable.
The Breeze will be filing FOIAs for that daily, locational data, which we’ll begin publishing in the next few weeks, even if it means filing a new one every single day. I believe firmly not only in the power of the press, but also in the importance of an informed public.
As we all navigate this policy together, we must demand of the university transparency, accountability and openness with its community, even if that means hard choices or a lowered bottom line. With the recent full authorization of the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine, there are signs of hope beginning to show, but the only way we’ll get through this is if the entire community, including our leaders, come together and put health first, above all else.
We at The Breeze will continue to do our jobs, covering the university critically, asking tough questions, and finding truth for our community, especially in the darkest corners most in need of sunshine.
CORRECTION (Sept. 5, 2:15 p.m.): The previous version of this article stated that the Conley v. James Madison University case hearing was Aug. 16. The hearing was on Aug. 26.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.