It is a well-known story that while Rome was burning to the ground in 64AD, Emperor Nero watched the flames and played his fiddle. Now, with over 100 cases of COVID-19 reported at Boston College last week and seemingly no actionable steps being taken, I can sure smell the smoke. I only hope the BC administration will put their fiddles down.
The week of September 7th to 13th saw a jump in cases of COVID-19, with BC’s website reporting 67 undergraduates testing positive out of just 2,647 tests. This is roughly a 2.5% positive rate and drastically outnumbers the rates of Boston University and Northeastern. Just over two weeks ago, the Boston Globe reported that 13 members of BC’s swim and dive team tested positive for the virus before the administration informed its own student body.
What is the school’s response to the alarming spike in cases of a deadly disease and a wave of negative publicity? Passive aggression, of course.
On September 11th, students received an email from Vice President of Student Affairs Joy Moore, reminding everyone to stand six feet apart and adhere to the university’s weakly enforced COVID-19 guidelines. The tone of the email was friendly enough but the message and the timing were clear: according to BC, this uptick in cases is our fault.
Let me just address VP Moore’s point very quickly so I can move on. Yes, some of you are partying. You’re risking yourselves, your roommates, and who knows who else, and I hope someday you’ll realize how incredibly irresponsible you’re being. However, it wasn’t our decision to field sports teams for the fall semester. It wasn’t our decision to bring the school back at nearly full capacity instead of taking the lead from other institutions and only allowing a fraction of the student body on campus. We didn’t set up a testing system that seems designed to be overwhelmed and leaves our next COVID-19 test after moving in up to a mysterious lottery that no one understands.
That was Boston College.
Schools like Boston University and Northeastern—often cited as BC’s peer institutions—have rolled out comprehensive and thorough testing plans. At BU, students can download a pdf file telling them how often they will be tested during the fall semester, according to where they live and how they attend classes. According to this sheet, a BU student living on campus will be tested twice a week. Northeastern announced in August that they would be testing students every three days.
For comparison, I (a student living on campus and taking a mixture of in-person and online classes) have been tested twice. The first time was upon arrival, and the second was a few days later because I came from a high-risk state. Since then, it has been over two weeks and I haven’t been tested again. A friend of mine in the Connell School of Nursing (who chose to remain anonymous for fear of negative consequences from the university) was tested as part of a routine procedure for nursing students and never received her results. “I’m pretty sure I’ll never see those results,” she said. “I think they lost it.”
Meanwhile, the administration continues to say nothing helpful. On Monday, students received an email from Dr. Douglas Comeau and Dr. Welkin Johnson that essentially suggested that the university has no plans to immediately change their strategy. In one section of the Q&A included in the email, the doctors stated that 2,945 tests were conducted the week before, and that they, “expect to conduct a similar or higher number of tests next week.”
We deserve a stronger plan than “a similar or higher number of tests.” Which is it, similar or higher? How much higher? These are relevant questions, but the school so far has treated the growing concern like the entire weight of this pandemic should fall on the shoulders of its students.
In an interview with WBUR, university spokesman Jack Dunn continued to dance around giving real answers to questions beyond almost word-for-word repeats of statements that students have received from other administration officials via email.
When asked about Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller's open letter to BC asking them to take more drastic measures to combat the virus, Dunn said: “We think we have an excellent plan in place, a plan that prioritizes targeting, surveillance testing of individuals identified through contact tracing, and on the areas on and off-campus where positive cases have occurred.”
This does sound like an “excellent plan” if you are not a BC student, in which case you would know that “prioritizing” the testing of targeted individuals leaves the rest of the students behind with no idea when they’ll next get tested.
Regarding contact tracing, Dunn’s statement is almost laughable. Even Dr. Comeau’s email very clearly states that faculty won’t necessarily be alerted if a student in their class tests positive. How is this a legitimate contact tracing strategy? If a professor teaching a student who tests positive isn’t considered a close enough contact to be alerted, then what about us? What if I’m in a class with someone who tests positive?
A sophomore who works as a lifeguard at the BC pool, and who asked to remain anonymous, has doubts of her own about contact tracing. “I don’t believe the administration ever had a plan to keep students safe, only a plan to take our tuition in hopes of making up for what they lost last semester,” she said. “It’s clear now that BC does not actually care about its students and faculty, but it’s image and profit.” She was never contacted for tracing or tested after her potential exposure to the swim team.
Students aren’t going to get any answers through dodgy interviews and useless emails…we need transparency. We are scared. Not every criticism can be rebutted with “stop partying,” especially for the vast majority of us who are not partying and are still seeing our friends, neighbors, and classmates get sick.
This isn’t a good time to be concerned about keeping things in house. If the university has a testing and tracing plan that can keep us safe, then they should stop repeating the same lines over and over again and show us.