New COVID-19 policies ‘fared well’ over the summer, set to continue this fall

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Photo: Hongyu Liu

Emerson’s testing site at Tufts Medical Center.

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant Enterprise News Editor

As the fall semester begins, students return to an Emerson with the most relaxed COVID-19 policies since the start of the pandemic.

Following a shift in COVID protocol over the summer, the college switched to a symptomatic-only testing model, implemented an “isolate-in-place” model for those who test positive, and opted for a mask-optional policy in all campus spaces except the Emerson Wellness Center and Office of the Arts spaces.

“These policy changes fared well over the summer,” said Christina Paris, associate director of the Emerson Wellness Center. “We are optimistic [that] the current policies, and adherence to them, will help keep the Emerson community safe and proactive against COVID-19.”

According to Paris, the college saw 30 COVID cases throughout the summer, with students reporting their positive test results through the COVID-19 Self-Report Form. Upon testing positive, students received information regarding isolation procedures and when to return to campus. 

Senior creative writing major Sisel Gelman said she feels “pretty safe” on campus, but acknowledged that others might not. 

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“[For] my individual health, I’m not so concerned because I feel that currently I’m quite immune,” she said. “But I know that a lot of students who are more immunocompromised do feel very strongly that Emerson policies have [relaxed too much].”

Gelman described the experience of her friend who contracted COVID while on campus this summer and isolated in her dormitory. Unlike past procedures, the college did not deliver meals to her room. Now, COVID-positive students must venture out, properly masked, to public spaces like the dining hall to access to-go food and other necessities.

“I found it shocking that the new policy will not bring meals to students,” Gelman said. “If we’re trying to minimize risk, that’s the first place Emerson could change policies.”

For junior visual and media arts major Abbie Attridge, this quarantine method also raised concern around shared living spaces. Should an on-campus student contract COVID, they are required to isolate-in-place, meaning roommates are subjugated to daily exposure. 

“I have a roommate,” Attridge said. “If I get COVID, I’m giving it to her.”

Despite this, Attridge still feels comfortable with the college’s mask-optional policy, which provides a sense of normalcy that many people crave after experiencing more than two years of the pandemic.

“I’m kind of sick of wearing the mask,” she said. “Honestly, I think everybody is. I know there’s a risk [that] I can still get it. [But] I’m kind of fine with the risk—I know I’m not going to die from COVID, and knowing that makes me more comfortable.”

Attridge also noted that without weekly surveillance testing, asymptomatic COVID cases could spread undetected. 

“If they’re asymptomatic… they can’t just go and test, so they don’t know [they have COVID],” she said. 

While the mask mandate no longer stands in most campus spaces, the vaccination requirement remains. The college mandates all community members who live, work, or study on any of Emerson’s campuses remain up-to-date with COVID vaccinations, provided they don’t have an approved religious or medical exemption, according to Paris. 

The college’s vaccination rate currently sits at 95%, with vaccinated students facing a notably lesser risk of severe infection. Although breakthrough infections may occur and COVID risk depends on a number of factors besides immunization status, an unvaccinated person is 29 times as likely to end up hospitalized from COVID as a vaccinated person and five times as likely to get infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I’m glad [administration is] making us be vaccinated,” Attridge said. “That says to me they understand it’s real, they understand it’s dangerous, so we’ve got to have [the vaccine] and protect people.”

However, the mask-optional policy leads junior stage and production management major Delene Beauchamp to feel “nervous” about COVID risk.

“I think that collectively, the world has been like, ‘The pandemic is over’ and it’s very much not,” Beauchamp said. “COVID hasn’t gone away, and especially with the rise of Monkeypox and how that can be transmitted, I think masks should still be mandatory in classroom spaces.”

The United States has seen growing concern over the spread of monkeypox over the summer, with almost 20,000 confirmed cases in the country, including more than 300 confirmed cases in Massachusetts alone, according to CDC data.

The college continually monitors “the state of monkeypox nationwide and in our city,” stated associate director Paris. “We have developed protocols and will soon share more information to the Emerson Community on the OneEmerson website.”

Although monkeypox does not share the same airborne transmissibility as COVID, Beauchamp noted the importance of taking this virus just as seriously, as it spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact.

“People are treating [monkeypox] the same way people treated COVID in March 2020, and it’s like, I guess we learned nothing,” he said. “There’s not a ton of accessible information… It’s really hard to stay in the know about something that is rapidly evolving and changing every day.”

With rising concern surrounding both monkeypox and COVID, Beauchamp said he plans to remain masked in all campus spaces, “for the safety of myself and others.”

“I think there’s this need to make life how it was before, but that is impossible,” he said. “There was this global event that [has] shifted our mindset, shifted the way we move [around] the world… At a certain point, people need to reckon with the fact that life will never go back to what we knew it was before 2020.”