Bella Isham said she never imagined herself opposing the university administration when she imagined going to BYU. But when randomized testing and contact tracing came to campus, she became an outspoken critic.
“There was nothing more in the world I wanted than to go to this school growing up,” she said of BYU. “The fact that I’m having struggles with it is actually heartbreaking.”
Isham, who also goes by Bella Isom, is the co-author of a petition signed by 3,055 BYU students and employees as of Oct. 2 that says randomized COVID-19 testing and the use of the Healthy Together app are violations of privacy and personal liberty.
Naomi Hernández said she was inspired to co-write the petition with Isham by her mother, Chrisann Justice, a BYU alumna. Justice and Isham’s mother, Anne Isham, met on a Facebook group and helped their daughters connect. Justice was uncomfortable naming the group but said it consists of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints who are skeptical of vaccines and are concerned with the privacy of their medical records.
“They’re both very strong women and encouraging mothers so they helped us realize that we can write a petition and it’s not that difficult,” Hernández said. She said the decision to join with Isham wasn’t just for her mom, though.
“I don’t think we should take information from those in authority and just go along with it. I think we should question and analyze everything for ourselves and choose for ourselves,” she said.
The app and privacy
“This is a violation of our privacy, bodily autonomy and a breach of the contract under which we accepted our invitation to BYU as a student or employee,” the petition states. It demands BYU “respect God-given rights” by ending required medical reporting by students, faculty and staff.
The petition also calls on BYU to make downloading the contact tracing Healthy Together app voluntary, claiming the app gives the state of Utah and the Utah Health Department access to students’ health, location and Bluetooth data.
BYU’s COVID-19 website says that while the Healthy Together app does use Bluetooth technology, it only tracks the app user’s position relative to other app users, not the actual location.
The petition cites a data breach in 2012, when private information from over 780,000 Utah residents was hacked on a state server, as a concern. Potentially vulnerable information the app collects includes names, phone numbers, possible exposures to COVID-19, daily symptoms, and whether individuals have been tested for COVID.
BYU student Kelton Rindlisbaker said he signed Isham’s petition because he believes the Healthy Together app to be in violation of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which was created “to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rindlisbaker said because the app tracks who he’s made contact with, it is a threat to his right to privacy. He also said he’s concerned that BYU doesn’t accept responsibility for the privacy policies of third parties with which this information is shared, as stated in Article 9 of BYU’s privacy notice.
BYU spokeswoman Natalie Ipson said HIPAA does not apply to BYU’s use of the Healthy Together app, and BYU complies with applicable privacy laws.
Rindlisbaker is not alone in his concerns about privacy. In June, the Kansas Legislature passed the COVID-19 Contact Tracing Privacy Act, which requires contact tracing to be voluntary and prohibits the disclosure of sensitive information to third parties.
Disagreeing with COVID campus regulations
BYU students were briefed on campus procedures for COVID-19 through an online video tutorial and quiz, both required before the start of Fall Semester. By completing the quiz, students agree that they can be tested for COVID-19 multiple times. Students also agree their on-campus privileges can be restricted or taken away completely if they don’t comply with social distancing guidelines.
Isham did not comply. Not wanting to cause a stir on campus by openly defying guidelines, she resolved to continue her education at home in southern Utah. But because Isham didn’t complete the online video quiz, she was barred from accessing her myBYU account, including LearningSuite.
“I called them and said, ‘Hey I’m not even there. I’m 300 miles away,’” Isham said. She said she was told “that’s just the way it is” by Casey Peterson, Associate Dean of Students, who also serves on the Disruptive Student Committee.
“During this pandemic, our greatest hope is to protect all members of the campus community,” Peterson told The Daily Universe in an email. “We hope our students will help us with this effort. Before the start of the school year, BYU explained that all faculty, staff and enrolled students must watch the Welcome Back to the Y training video and complete the quiz before August 31.
“Students and employees were told that those who did not complete the training would not be able to access the services available through myBYU starting August 31,” he said. “Those who completed the training, regardless if they checked yes or no were given back their access at the beginning of the semester. Those who checked no had on-campus privileges restricted.”
The Disruptive Student Committee exists “to address conduct that is disruptive to our educational processes and educational environment,” according to BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.
At some point, Isham decided to fill out the Healthy Utah app quiz and mark “no,” on the question that required her to comply with on-campus guidelines. Afterward, she said she had a two-and-a-half-week delay in accessing her classes online because access to her records at BYU had been locked due to an unrelated incident during her freshman year.
BYU student Larissa Brady, another petition signer, said she has been the target of insults and even death threats on Instagram for speaking out against BYU’s new requirements, which she said are dystopian.
She said BYU’s “Compassion is Contagious” campaign has created a shame culture against those who disagree with contact tracing and mandated testing. “Choosing not to be randomized tested is not a sin, and we should never compare it to that.”
Brady said as a senior preparing to graduate, the new COVID-19 guidelines made her feel stuck. She didn’t want to agree to randomized testing in order to come on campus, but the classes she needed to graduate were only offered in person. “You can’t just suddenly threaten to take away my schooling because I won’t get randomized testing whenever you want me to.”
She eventually complied when she was informed by BYU Human Resources that her internship as a health coach with Y Be Fit was on the line.
“BYU has established several safety measures to successfully prevent and manage the spread of COVID-19,” said Marcy Fetzer, the managing director of employee relations.
“Additionally, the university has explained on-campus privileges will be restricted for members of the campus community who are non-compliant with campus policies related to COVID-19. Given these guidelines, my message has always been that an employee’s employment would be reviewed if they chose not to comply,” Fetzer said.
Brady said she understands the fear associated with COVID-19 and said there is a place for protective measures, but they should never be forced. “This university taught me to stand up for my rights and stand up for agency, and they’re the ones saying that for the greater good they’re going to take away agency? Sounds kind of like Satan’s plan.”
Brady expressed concern about the backlash she has received for voicing her opinions and said she hopes others will see her as someone who is trying to incite positive change, rather than as a radical who “hates any and all rules.”
Isham said some BYU faculty members signed her petition, but she didn’t feel comfortable sharing their names because of possible retribution by the university.
A Daily Universe reporter who joined the petition’s Facebook group posted to ask if any faculty members were willing to comment. The reporter was immediately removed from the group.
Since it was written over a month ago, the petition has failed to create any lasting change. Regulations actually tightened Sept. 22 when President Kevin J Worthen released a joint statement with UVU President Astrid S. Tuminez telling students to stay home except for church, work, or other essential activities. “We feel quite ignored,” Isham said.
Isham said she would have liked to talk with President Worthen about students’ concerns with contact tracing and randomized testing. “If they had come up with a situation where we were allowed to exercise our agency, I think that would’ve been the greatest thing in the world.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated Bella Isham was blocked from attending her online classes. This was not the case — Isham still had access to her classes through Canvas, but not through BYU’s LearningSuite online portal. That version also incorrectly identified a BYU professor who communicated with Isham.