Emerson’s COVID-19 protocols for spring semester warrant criticism

Emersons+testing+site+at+Tufts+Medical+Center.

Photo: Hongyu Liu

Emerson’s testing site at Tufts Medical Center.

By Editorial Board

With students already back on campus and in-person classes officially starting on Jan. 18, COVID-19 cases are bound to continue their rise. Given the fumbled response to the surge at the end of the fall semester, how is the college planning on handling the next few weeks any differently? 

We should give Emerson credit for learning from their mistakes in the fall—namely dropping the pooled testing process, which was inefficient in slowing the rapid outbreak in December. That said, the effectiveness of the new protocols Emerson has announced is anyone’s guess. 

The college has reduced the mandatory isolation and quarantine periods to five days, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—after which individuals may be released and attend classes in person.

These protocols were put forth in addition to a return to bi-weekly testing for the foreseeable future, restrictions on in-person gatherings and facility usage, as well as the booster and PCR test requirement to return to campus unless a student has a medical or religious exemption. 

Even with the current stay-in-room order, the limited campus access, and classes being held virtually, the college has reported the most positive cases in a testing cycle since testing began in fall 2020––228 cases since Jan. 3, surpassing the 210 cases reported from the entirety of last semester ––an unprecedented surge which Gilligan described as “an uptick.”

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Massachusetts’ “uptick” has been regularly recording upwards of 10,000 cases a day, as the Omicron variant overtakes Delta as the dominant strain of coronavirus in the U.S. and in Massachusetts, new data from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard shows. 

As the strain is still relatively new, its severity has yet to be determined. However, preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, which may lead to more hospitalizations. 

The new CDC new guidelines have been criticized by several media outlets, alleging that they ignore post-infection antigen testing––a tool crucial to detecting if one is still possibly infectious, even after the recommended quarantine. Top physicians in the American Medical Association have also slammed the guidelines, making the point that a negative test should be required before people can be cleared to leave isolation. 

Emerson’s five-day isolation does follow the updated CDC guidelines. However, with the Omicron variant being more contagious than the others, this five-day quarantine seems more like a pacifier to those who want to “get back to normal” rather than a safety precaution.

Even so, Emerson’s new protocols have restricted access to many of the typical amenities enjoyed last semester, including the dining hall, the library, and the gym. It’s a befuddling contrast, to say the least. We are not permitted to interact with students in other residence halls, yet students are allowed to leave isolation on day six and attend classes knowing they could potentially still be contagious? 

These rules seem backward and sideways. Yes, it’s smart and safe to restrict the number of people in the community spaces—but the same people who put those rules in place also have decided that students who might still have COVID-19 can go into a classroom filled with other students. It doesn’t make sense. 

Emerson is looking for the easiest possible way to handle COVID on campus. That was shown especially during the last few weeks of the fall semester. Many students, including several Beacon staff members, tested positive during the fall surge through on-campus testing or right when they got home from campus. Almost all of those who contracted COVID received contact tracing information days later from the college, and many had a hard time getting in contact with college health officials—indicating that the college was simply not prepared for an influx of cases of that magnitude. 

The significance of the fall surge could have been avoided had we stuck with individual testing throughout the semester instead of making the switch to pooled testing––a move that was meant to help “mitigate testing costs” according to the FAQ email sent four days before the switch was made. 

This decision was made at a time when the pandemic had started to lighten up; but if this pandemic has taught us anything over the past two years, it’s that life is unpredictable, and the college should have taken that into consideration before cutting corners to save a buck.

We saw the consequence of this as nearly 100 community members contracted COVID at the end of the semester, according to the dashboard. As many students settle back into their residence halls, the spring surge surpassed this number during the week of move-in, bringing in 167 positive cases from Jan. 3 to Jan. 9. For those who were unfortunate enough to test positive on campus and spend the beginning of their winter break isolating in dorms, Emerson did not maintain much clear communication with those in quarantine.

Several Beacon staff members and their contacts waited days, and some over a week to hear back from contact tracing or other administration. Overall communication between students and the college was not very clear.

Given the college’s past and recent response to surges, how are students supposed to expect any change? There is no telling how this semester will go, but one thing is for certain—students need to stay vigilant on their own.