Op-Ed: COVID Testing: F&M Should Work Smarter, Not Harder

By Liz Joslin || Contributing Writer

In light of Bonchek College House’s recent emergency quarantine, which followed a positive wastewater test in the dorm building, students are sharing frustrations about the college’s complicated and convoluted prevention policies. How is it fair for over 100 students to be quarantined once again following a test that could confirm only one resident’s infection? Or worse, would the test results show that the infection came from a non-resident, as was the case for Brooks College House?

It might be appropriate at a time like this to ask ourselves if our college is putting their money and efforts towards proper practices. F&M pretends to have it all figured out, but when emergency lockdowns like those in Bonchek and Brooks continue to pop up, and positive tests appear out of thin air, it’s clear that something is missing. It might be that F&M is working harder, not smarter. 

For example: Continuously testing the wastewater in all campus buildings; taking swift action to quarantine students that report a cough or a runny nose; modifying closing times of the libraries and dining options; prohibiting large in-person gatherings; suspending students who are caught breaking protocols; sending P-Safe to patrol students in off-campus housing, who otherwise have free will in their daily activities and travels; and barring the sophomore class from returning this fall, in efforts to de-densify campus. It’s safe to say, F&M, you’re working harder. 

But, F&M, some of your rivals are working smarter. Take Emerson College: another small liberal arts school with a similar acceptance rate and an undergraduate enrollment of 3,878. Located in Boston, Massachusetts, Emerson belongs to a city twelve times the size of Lancaster and home to 35 colleges and universities (most of which opted for remote-only learning in the fall). Emerson decided to welcome all class years back to campus this semester, and most students who returned even have roommates. The majority of classes are offered in-person, and students have free will over their travels in the city of Boston. Given these factors, you would think Emerson College would be much more susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak than a small, suburban school like Franklin & Marshall. Wrong. 

Emerson College is working smarter. Sure, Emerson and F&M share some basic practices: masks at all times, daily symptom trackers, and rapid testing for symptomatic students. However, if these practices were the simple secret to handing Covid-19 on a college campus, Bonchek College House would not be on lockdown right now. Emerson College students are not subjected to five days of quarantine for a positive COVID test unrelated to them. Emerson students do not fear the undetected presence of COVID on their campus. Emerson students do not have to watch groups of their peers being ushered into the quarantine dorm. Emerson students are tested by the school every single week. Results are posted daily to their clear and extensive online Covid-19 Dashboard. Since August 6th, there have only been sixteen positive COVID cases accumulated at Emerson out of 18,016 tests conducted, which accounts for a mere 0.09% positivity rate. I would compare these numbers to those of Franklin & Marshall’s, but F&M’s Covid-19 Dashboard is so confusing and misleading to read, it is unclear whether it presents an accurate report. 

Why aren’t we afforded these same luxuries? We all know what the classic excuse is: money. You’re right, F&M, testing your entire student body every week is expensive. It certainly is for Emerson. In fact, Emerson college is facing a $33 million deficit as a result of its Covid-19 protocols and practices. Some would ask, is it worth it? But I would ask F&M the same question. 

Is the lack of consistent testing worth it when you have to quarantine and emergency-test two entire dorm buildings less than two weeks apart? Is the lack of consistent testing worth it when an entire class is cut off from their community for a semester?  If you think you’re saving money in the long term, just wait a few years until it’s time the classes of 2021-2024 are asked to take out their checkbooks and donate. 

While graduates of Emerson College will likely feel proud to donate to the institution that worked smarter to protect them and provide transparency amidst a pandemic, graduates of Franklin & Marshall College may have to question whether they felt the same. Work smarter, F&M, not harder. 

First-year Liz Joslin is a contributing writer, her email is ejoslin@fandm.edu.

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