Like many students vowing to hit the Plex five times a week at the start of the new calendar year, Boston College said, “New year, new me!” in regards to COVID-19. The news that BC would no longer require weekly COVID tests for its undergraduate students rocked many parts of campus when it surfaced last winter. Many students feared the worst. Without weekly testing of the undergraduate student body, the university simply could not know its true positivity rate. However, if last February was a gamble of epic proportions, this September is a nightmare. New developments in the school’s COVID safety protocols (or lack thereof) are nothing short of dismal.
The one comforting aspect of the news that students wouldn’t be receiving weekly COVID tests anymore was that they could still request one from University Health Services (UHS) if they felt so inclined, but even that is no longer the case. UHS no longer provides free PCR testing to undergraduates—even if they have COVID symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive. In the only COVID update of the semester, UHS promised to provide “guidance” to those who believe they have symptoms. Yet UHS has also explicitly refused to administer PCR tests to directly exposed students, even upon request. Their only option is to search for off-campus testing resources.
If a student does manage to take a rapid test or make an appointment for a PCR and it comes back positive, they have nowhere to go. Pine Manor College, which served as BC’s quarantine housing for the past two academic years, has closed its doors to sick students. Students who test positive for COVID are expected to return home for the duration of their quarantine. If that isn’t feasible, they simply remain in their residence hall and have no obligation to inform anyone that they are COVID-positive. To make matters worse for these students, many professors have limited online options for quarantining students. Some professors don’t have Panopto set up, and Zoom offerings are few and far between. This discourages symptomatic students from reporting themselves to UHS while creating a layer of additional stress for COVID-positive students.
While Covid might not be the looming threat it was two years ago, it is still very much a hazard and ought to be treated as such. Vaccine requirements may offer some protection for students and faculty on campus, but studies have shown that vaccine efficacy decreases with time. This means that full vaccination will not slow the spread of COVID as efficiently as it did this time last year. Boston College can take steps to protect its students and faculty from the virus by providing access to free antigen tests and reinstating lecture recordings and Zoom options for sick and isolating students.
Any and all of these actions would be a step in the right direction of mitigating COVID's presence on campus. However, BC has proven reluctant to implement health and safety protocols that are common sense. This time last year, BC was the only university in the Boston area not to require mask-wearing in its classes. And once again, BC stands alone in its refusal to offer access to antigen testing. Almost every major university in Boston provides students with COVID tests of some variety upon request, including to Boston University, Northeastern University, Berklee, Harvard, and MIT. After worrying about COVID for almost three years, student and faculty apathy towards health risks have never been higher. But the administration’s response to that sentiment should not be a complete rejection of practices that reduce COVID rates.
Antigen tests—especially when taken repeatedly—have proven to be excellent tools for identifying COVID-positive individuals. And because of their near-instantaneous result, they are perfect for time-pressed college students. Thus, accessible testing, paired with options for online learning, would provide a hassle-free process for students who suspect they have COVID. Those who are worried about exhibiting symptoms or exposure can take a rapid test and attend class online depending on the result. When returning from quarantine, students could then remove their masks faster if they test negative multiple times.
Campus-wide burnout for COVID testing, masking, and quarantining doesn’t need to spell the end of these practices. Instead, by updating each of the aforementioned practices, BC can ensure that students remain willing and able to take precautions. After all, stopping the spread of COVID—not denying the problem that it poses—is the best way to keep students in the classroom. With any luck, the school will come to realize that providing free antigen testing to students and faculty can only help keep BC safe.