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  • 11.11.21

COVID-19 Brings New Reports, Ethical Challenges

  • by Michelle Appel

When the AIR Board approved the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles in September 2019, COVID-19 wasn't a blip on anyone's radar. Those were halcyon days, when the most popular dashboards tracked student success and enrollment. As fall 2020 brought students and faculty back to some campuses, a new kind of dashboard gained popularity—campus COVID Trackers. These dashboards were high-profile, and a rating system even evolved around them, with campuses earning transparency grades from A+ to F (Redden, 2020). In many cases, IR offices were responsible for, or assisted with the creation of these dashboards, engaging the profession with a realm of data most had not used before—health data. Often, authors of these reports were forced to balance the need for campus safety with the rights of individuals for privacy. The reports dealt with health and safety in ways that institutional researchers had never before confronted.

Some campuses had the ability to blend in wireless network activity, card swipe data, and health center data. We can imagine some of the supervisory use cases: supervisors notified when employees were out of compliance with campus rules (accessing campus WiFi without confirming the lack of symptoms, coming to campus without a recent negative test); supervisors notified of employees failing to register a COVID vaccine or waiver; supervisors notified when individuals had contacted the campus about COVID symptoms or exposure.

That said, these are just a few of the ways that COVID may have introduced new data sources and reports, along with a new lens on ethical issues and considerations. So, how might the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles address some of these new scenarios? I invite you to reflect and to join in conversation on the AIR Hub. And to get you started, here's what I've been thinking:

  • What were the real-world consequences of the COVID reports on your campus? Were they used to determine when and how to bring people onto campus? Did they help determine who should and should not be on campus? What other decisions did these reports guide and who bore the consequences of those decisions?
  • How did our COVID reports, hopefully with small numbers of people testing positive, protect the privacy and confidentiality of the individuals behind those numbers? In many cases, report writers didn't have access to the identity of individuals. Was that enough?
  • COVID data proved to be complex with many nuances. Were our reports transparent and clear about what was being presented? How did we handle the differences in the types of tests, the lag between testing and results? The varying nature of quarantine housing capacity? The difference between symptomatic and asymptomatic cases?
  • What rights do students and faculty have over data about their use of campus networks and access to campus buildings? Do the health and safety risks associated with a pandemic justify the use of these data to monitor who has been present where?
  • What kinds of context were useful in the ever-changing and unprecedented situations campuses faced? Was an absolute number of cases meaningful and, if not, what data were needed to provide context? How did campus understanding and attitudes about those numbers change after vaccines became available? Were rates in surrounding areas necessary if students were forbidden to leave campus?
  • How did we ensure reports were accessible? Were they publicly available? Were they able to be accessed across a variety of devices? Did they convey information in ways that people of all abilities could access and understand them?

The Principles were never meant to be a recipe or a prescriptive "how to" guide but were instead intended to convey a set of guiding values to consider when doing our work. With some time and space from the chaos of COVID reporting, how might we answer some of the questions the Principles speak to?


Redden, E. (2020, October 8). How transparent is your college's dashboard? Inside Higher Education.


Michelle AppelMichelle Appel is a Director in the University of Maryland's Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment and is currently on loan to UMD's Workday implementation serving as Reporting Lead. Michelle has more than 25 years of experience in IR and has served as President of AIR, NEAIR, and MDAIR. During her time as AIR President, Michelle led the effort to draft and adopt the AIR Statement of Ethical Principles.