On the last day of final exams for fall semester, Dean of Students Andrew Jones shared that there would be a new requirement for students returning in January and in spring: reentry testing.
Following the completion of reentry testing at the start of spring semester, Kathryn Dennehy, director of residence life, said the process went smoothly. However, many students hesitated when the form to submit test results required confirmation that they quarantined from the time the test was taken to the time of their return.
Disparities in whether students chose to quarantine—which all affirmed they would do by checking a box at the end of a form when submitting their test results—raises new questions about whether the college’s reentry testing effort was effective or realistic.
For example, junior Regina Olsen works at the Indiana Masonic Home, a senior living community in Franklin. There, she is rapid-tested twice weekly.
Because she is frequently tested and needed to work during the time period, she did not quarantine. She didn’t alert Dennehy because she is in the sports testing pool and Head Athletic Trainer Chris Shaff is aware she is frequently tested at her workplace.
But Olsen said the requirement is impossible to meet for most students and they would likely only quarantine if they had reason to believe they have or have been exposed to the virus.
“I knew that it wasn’t realistic for my situation,” Olsen said. “And really, I don’t know who it would be realistic for.”
Dennehy said the requirement was to ensure the result was still accurate at the time of the students’ return to campus. But the vast majority of students, responding to an unscientific poll conducted online by The Franklin, said they failed to quarantine. Of 182 students who responded to the poll, 153 reported they did not obey the quarantine requirement.
Although some students who were unable to self-isolate reached out to Dennehy, it appears many did not or did not know that they should.
Junior Amanda Meek, for example, said she didn’t quarantine during the time period because she was unaware of the requirement and because of her job at CVS Pharmacy, which is also where she was tested.
“I saw the flyer they’d sent out that we need to test and everything before school,” Meek said. “And I just basically took like ‘okay, here’s the date I need to do it,’ and that’s all I really looked at.”
The initial notice was one of four lengthy emails sent out by Jones and Dennehy about the testing. These reminders were sent mostly over winter break and Immersive Term and, aside from the initial, just days away from the term they preceded. The final reminders prior to Immersive and spring term were a week and four days before the start of the term, respectively.
Of course, students can be faulted with neglecting to read the important emails sent out by the administration. The emails were easy to ignore, but Franklin College has stressed students paying attention to announcements about reopening and the unpredictability of the pandemic.
Dennehy said some students reached out to her saying they couldn’t quarantine due to work commitments or being around family.
Though students were required to sign a form stating they were isolated following their test, Dennehy didn’t indicate anything would be done about students who did not quarantine. Instead, she said any cases that flew under the radar should be caught through the college’s weekly surveillance testing.
The protocol to stay isolated was also confused by a Q&A sent out by Dennehy, which indicated that students on vacation during the period they needed to get tested could go seek out a testing site wherever they are located.
The reentry testing caught 17 new cases prior to the start of January term, and eight cases before the start of spring semester.
The new requirement also placed a large burden on a few Franklin College faculty members.
Dennehy was tasked with reviewing every single test submission and said there were over 900. She had to verify that each entry was a PCR test, which detects the virus’s genetic material, taken within six days of returning to the campus.
She then shared them with other members of Franklin College’s staff, including head of security Steve Leonard.
Leonard turned student cards on and off each individually, with some help from other security officers. He said this was a long, slow process and he wishes it would be more efficient so students would be guaranteed access to buildings when they arrive.
“Until I was doing all of that work, I didn’t necessarily realize how much work it was going to be,” Leonard said.
Because the system Franklin College security uses to activate and deactivate cards goes by individual student accounts, it is tedious for Leonard and other security personnel to activate and deactivate large numbers at once. This issue was amplified by students submitting tests on the day they moved in, when the documents showed that they had the results for days before their return to campus.
Leonard clarified that the system isn’t automated; students can’t expect to gain access as soon as they submit a result. He said through the long hours he put into reactivating cards, he knew the work he was doing was meaningful and productive.
“I don’t want students to get back and their card not work when it should,” Leonard said.
On the other end of the spectrum, the cards of students who have not submitted a negative COVID-19 test will stay deactivated. Dennehy said there are just two individuals in this category and they have not attempted to come to campus or attend in-person classes.
Leonard said that in order to monitor whether students who haven’t submitted tests are on campus, a list of students who haven’t submitted tests is regularly updated. The security office can use this list to then see where a student’s ID card has been used, even if it is deactivated. However, Leonard said compliance has been very high.
“As the list [of students who haven’t submitted tests] got smaller and smaller, it became apparent that the overwhelming majority of students did what we asked them to do,” Leonard said. “They might not have understood it completely clearly, but they were willing to make the right effort.”
Initially, the Centers for Disease Control released interim guidance stating that reentrance testing is not recommended because it is “unknown if entry testing in [Institutions of Higher Education] provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected with implementation of other infection preventive measures.”
This non-recommendation was denounced by the Chronicle of Higher Education, calling it “inexplicable and irresponsible.”
Now, the CDC’s updated guidance says that entry testing and regular surveillance testing, much like Franklin has implemented now, might prevent or reduce COVID transmission.
Cases on campus have decreased, with none reported in the surveillance testing done the week of Feb. 15. However, this could be attributed to the decline in COVID-19 cases across the state and nation, instead of just the Fortify Franklin protocols including the reentrance testing.
What remains clear, however, is that COVID-19 persists. It is unlikely vaccines will be made available to college students by spring break, with health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci predicting widespread vaccine availability in April. This could mean more reentry testing.
Franklin College can improve its reentry testing efforts with a renewed focus on communication. Email communication remains the primary way for officials to connect with students off campus, but these emails can and should be sent earlier so students would have enough time to react and plan.
Reentry testing is one of many ways we can protect our community from the virus, and therefore deserves further scrutiny. From what we saw this spring, the process should be changed as needed to better protect the vulnerable and lessen the stress for students reacting to last-minute announcements and for the few staff members charged with managing testing.