Positive COVID-19 tests and tightened restrictions rock campus life


Charlie McKenna

Meal bags being taken to quarantined and isolated students in the Paramount residence hall.

Emerson canceled all in-person student activities beginning at 5 p.m. for at least the next seven days on Wednesday, the result of an unprecedented spike in positive COVID-19 tests among community members in the past week.

Classes will continue to be held in-person, but all indoor and outdoor student activities, including athletics and student organization meetings, will be on hold until April 14, the email from Assistant Vice President for Campus Life and “COVD Lead” Erik Muurisepp said. All film production on and off-campus has also been canceled for the next week, Visual and Media Arts Chair Cristina Kotz Cornejo announced Wednesday night. 

All on-campus space capacities, aside from classrooms and dorms, have been set at one for the next week, an email from Student Engagement and Leadership Director Jason Meier said. The decisions were made in consultation with the Boston Public Health Commission and Tufts Medical Center, Muurisepp wrote. 

Emerson has reported 36 positives over the past week out of 7,112 tests administered, a positivity rate of .51 percent. As of Wednesday afternoon, 24 students are in on-campus isolation and 38 students are in on-campus quarantine, the highest figures seen over both the fall and spring semesters. On March 30, one community member was in isolation on campus, and three were in quarantine. 

Other local universities have not seen a similar explosion in positive tests to Emerson. Northeastern University and Boston University both have seven-day positivity rates well below Emerson’s—sitting at .3 percent and .25 percent, respectively. Nearby Suffolk University has had a positivity rate of .32 percent over the past week. Massachusetts reports a positivity rate of exclusively higher education testing that has remained level at .03 percent since March 23. 

The college’s cumulative positivity rate sits at .23 percent—after it fell as low as .19 percent on March 29. 

The rapid spread of the virus at Emerson follows a statement from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Wolensky that the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus first discovered in the United Kingdom has become the dominant variant of the virus in the U.S. 

Coronavirus cases in Massachusetts have been on the rise in the past two weeks, topping 2,000 nearly every day since March 26. In the fall, when administrators shut down all non-academic in-person activities after reporting 12 positive tests across two days, cases also rose past 2,000 each day. 

“I don’t know how I’m gonna go about my day now,” first-year marketing communication major Robert Hansen said. “It’s similar to the state that we were in at the beginning of the semester with the soft quarantine, but that was under very different circumstances. It’s a bummer.” 

On April 1, Muurisepp announced that the initial seven positives from testing on March 31 “seem to be linked and resulted in transmission within a group of people.” On Wednesday, he said not all cases could be attributed to those initial positives and he had seen no evidence of a superspreader event that gave rise to the spread, which an unnamed source with knowledge of the situation said was linked to Emerson’s athletic teams.

“There do seem to be some connections between some cases, and there also seem to be just general positives from the general community—outside Emerson community exposure,” Muurisepp said in an interview with The Beacon. “There are some situations where we need to make sure folks are adhering to our policies of distancing and masking and all of that to prevent any additional transmission on campus, but it is also I believe just a reminder that the virus is ever-present.”

Kathleen Nolan, a sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major, said her first reaction to the new restrictions was frustration. 

“I have been working really hard with my roommate to follow the rules—we keep our circle very small,” she said. “We’re both involved in various organizations that have been cut down a lot because of the pandemic, and we’re both missing out on a lot of things and it is frustrating that it’s a small group of people that are ruining it for everyone.”

Muurisepp said these restrictions could continue past April 14 if the number of new positives reported daily doesn’t begin to decrease in the coming days. In a Wednesday evening, COVID Q&A on Zoom, Muurisepp said if the situation were to worsen, the college would consider suspending in-person courses for a time, in an attempt to tame the virus’ spread. 

“I hope it works out,” Hansen said. “I understand that no one really knows what to do. But it’s been over a year at this point. We should figure out some sort of protocol, generally, so that we don’t have complete shutdowns like this.”

For the time being, however, in-person classes will continue due to a lack of transmission detected in a classroom setting, Muurisepp said. 

“We have not had any confirmed transmission within the classroom environment,” he said. “As academics is our primary initiative here at the college, keeping those is a goal of ours. Certainly, that would be the last resort.” 

Nolan said the continuance of in-person classes is confusing to her from a safety perspective.

“I hope that this week is like a wake-up call for people,” she said. “I’m a little confused because they say we can still have class. But classes are indoors with the most people I’m surrounded with all week. I just find it a little confusing that they’re like, ‘You can’t sit in groups of four, but you can attend your 30 person in-person class in a Walker classroom.’”

Muurisepp also said there have been no “in-depth conversations” regarding sending students home altogether, and that, too, would be a “super last resort.”

Evan Taylor, a first-year theatre and performance major, said this last resort doesn’t appear so far off.

“Why aren’t we just going home at this point?” he said. “There’s so little time in the semester.  it seems like a lot of things to sacrifice in order to preserve a very small amount of time here.” 

Others are disappointed by the stringent restrictions so close to the end of the term.

“I’m pretty disappointed that I’m taking two production classes so now I don’t get two final films,” sophomore visual and media arts major Truman Segal said. “That kind of sucks. But I guess it makes sense. Maybe. I don’t know why in-person classes are still happening if they think it makes sense.”

At the start of the spring semester, administrators blamed an increase in positives—53 in the college’s first three weeks of testing—on “more virus” in the state and in the city. Now, with cases on the rise statewide—Massachusetts has reported more than 2,000 new cases eight of the last 11 days—administrators are pointing to a mix of spread on-campus and in the city.  

The 26 positives reported last week marked the single highest total reported over the course of any week of testing across either semester. Now, the college is on pace to once again set a new record, with 12 positives recorded across the first two days of testing this week. 

“Seeing the numbers on the COVID dashboard is probably very concerning to a lot of people, as they should be, and hopefully it makes people not want to go out and not want to travel,” Nolan said. “But I also think it’s poor timing, because people have been doing those things, and now they gave us like five hours notice for a complete lockdown.” 

Taylor said the new restrictions might prove counterintuitive. 

“All I see this really doing from my point of view is exacerbating the amount of socializing that happens after this lockdown,” Taylor said. “People are gonna be worn out and tired and upset from not being able to see anybody tired of being alone. It’s going to cause them to go outside seeing the park and socialize more—more so than they were before.” 

In recent weeks, the college has loosened certain pandemic-era restrictions, like raising room capacities in some on-campus spaces and allowing its spring sports teams to compete in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference’s season. 

“I was a little worried when Emerson said that they were going to loosen restrictions—and there’s a reason that we haven’t had that many cases, because of the restrictions,” Nolan said. “And then now, it’s happening again, and we’re not allowed to do anything, and they’re like, ‘Oh, too bad.’” 

Due to the limited movement allowed on campus, students will only be able to access grab-and-go food options, barring all student dining within the Dining Center. The Fitness Center will remain closed for the next seven days beginning at 5 p.m. today. 172 Tremont Street will remain open to individual student reservations, but will not allow any group meetings to occur. Additionally, the Iwasaki Library will remain open for students who wish to study socially distanced, or reserve study spaces. 

“I feel like they’re freaking out and shutting everything down but also, not shutting down in- person classes doesn’t really make sense,” sophomore theatre education and performance major Jonathon Lassa said. “It’s the place everybody’s having the most contact with other people and it’s the one thing that didn’t shut down.”

All student travel is also prohibited effective immediately until April 14. On-campus students may only leave their residence halls to attend in-person classes, visit the library, go to reserved study spaces, pick up food, attend jobs, get a COVID-19 test, or seek medical care. 

Tufts Medical Center will remain open to students who are required to continue maintaining their twice-weekly testing schedule. The email says students must continue to complete their daily symptom tracker even while movement around campus will be limited for the next week.

As a result of the increased spread, faculty are asked to ensure all desks in classrooms are socially-distanced and all small group work be shifted online.

“If classrooms are being reset, one, we need that not to happen,” Muurisepp said. “And if they are being reset, we want to hear from students right away so we can follow up with that … we have had some of those reports. Luckily we have not seen anything of those reports in terms of transmission or potential spread.” 

Murisepp added that these new policies apply regardless of whether or not community members are vaccinated. 

“The College will continue to monitor the situation on-campus closely in the coming days and will inform you immediately of any additional measures that need to be taken,” the email said.  

In a Wednesday evening COVID Q&A, Muurisepp called the events of the past week a “blip” and said Emerson has had a “really tremendous year.”