Emerson admin strengthen COVID-19 testing enforcement amid rising statewide cases


Zhihao Wu

Emerson’s COVID-19 testing center at the corner of Kneeland Street and Harrison Ave.

By Andrew Brinker, Senior Investigative Reporter

More than eight weeks into the fall semester, Emerson administrators are cracking down on the weekly coronavirus testing requirement for students taking hybrid classes. 

A new automatic testing compliance system, meant to streamline enforcement, began systematically barring students from campus on Oct. 26 if more than seven days elapse since their last negative test was administered. Emails to community members under the new system threaten to suspend students from in-person learning for the duration of the fall semester if they do not comply with the weekly requirement. (Students are routinely tested at Tufts Medical Center near campus, after which their tests are processed at the Broad Institute.)

The sudden increase in testing enforcement, announced Oct. 25 by “COVID Lead” and Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp, comes with the backdrop of steadily rising COVID-19 case numbers in Massachusetts. Daily new infections topped 1,000 cases five days in a row this week for the first time since mid-May, and college administrators are now ramping up messaging around face masks and social distancing protocols. 

Before Oct. 25, college administrators enforced the testing requirement manually, Muurisepp said in an interview. He said he and his colleague would go through students’ testing data periodically and send emails to those who were not in compliance.

Now, students receive an email on the seventh day since their last test was administered, alerting them that their campus access will be shut off if they are not tested within the next business day. 

“[Automatic testing enforcement] was something that we were working towards,” Muurisepp said. “To be able to create systems to manually or automatically check [compliance], versus me and my colleagues running those lists periodically and reaching out to all those students, giving them a 24 hour window to go get tested.”

Once a student is barred from campus, they cannot reenter campus buildings until they receive a negative test result, the email from Muurisepp announcing the new enforcement process said.

That email was the first community-wide communication related to testing enforcement policies since Emerson released its “Back to Campus Guide” in July. The guide says not complying with the weekly requirement may result in a student’s access to campus being limited or a suspension for “at least the full academic year.”

The enforcement system is the second coronavirus testing policy shifted to an automated process in recent weeks. The COVID-19 dashboard update system switched to an automatic process on Oct. 13 after a Beacon investigation uncovered a string of inaccuracies in testing data appearing on the dashboard under the original manual update process. 

Before automated enforcement began this week, the manual process held students accountable to the testing requirement sporadically. Several students who went over a week without getting testing told The Beacon they skirted the requirement with no consequence. 

In September, one Beacon reporter went 16 days before receiving an email from Emerson’s “COVID Operations Team” informing them they were not in compliance with the weekly requirement. They were tested the day they received the email and were never locked out of campus. 

When asked about students who have gone more than two weeks without a test, Muurisepp said those students are few and far between. 

“There are certainly always exceptions,” he said. “There’s people that have either not been able to [be tested every week] for medical reasons and there’s folks that have not been on campus. So there are certainly those unique situations. But no one that I’m aware of has deliberately not adhered. Of course, we’ve heard from students that have reported [someone not complying with the testing requirement]. If they hear that, and they know that is happening, that is something we hope folks would take the initiative to share…with the appropriate parties.”

The college currently has no process for ensuring community members are not being tested more than the weekly requirement, Muurisepp said. Another Beacon reporter was tested every day for one week in September without receiving any communication from the college. 

“Obviously, we can’t have students testing every single day,” Muurisepp said. “One, science doesn’t really support that. Testing every day is not something that gets you anything really, besides knowing if you’re positive or not. But testing is a small piece of the overall. It’s a supply issue as well. There are only a finite number of tests that we have purchased from [the Broad Institute].”

Emerson’s weekly testing program is a key component of the college’s hybrid reopening plan, and administrators are now focused on getting through the next four weeks with low infection rates and case numbers before students are sent home, he said.

“We’re 30 days away…and I believe we’re gonna make it,” he said. “We’re going to be able to still come together and follow all the guidelines and the guidance.”