Amid an outbreak of COVID-19 cases on the Boston College campus, students, teachers and local elected officials are calling for more transparency from the university.
Boston College isreporting that 67 undergraduates tested positive for COVID-19 last week, bringing the total number of positive cases to 104 since students returned to campus in August. According to school data, 82 undergraduates are currently in isolation housing, and 22 students have recovered from the virus.
The school is conducting daily symptomatic testing and weekly asymptomatic testing, according to BC spokesperson Jack Dunn. The school is also testing all students who are identified as close contacts of infected people through contact tracing, Dunn said in an email. Students who are identified through contact tracing are placed in quarantine for two weeks, and if they test positive, they are placed in isolated university housing.
“This strategy has led to an increase in positive cases this week,” Dunn said Thursday, “but will allow us to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campus.”
But some students and faculty members say BC’s testing strategy is not rigorous enough and the school has not been transparent about the pandemic’s impact on the college community.
Unlike at other schools in the area, walk-in testing is not available, and BC is only offering 1,500 surveillance tests per week for an on-campus student body of about 7,200.
And BC seems to be battling higher COVID-19 rates than other Boston-area colleges. At Harvard, students and faculty are tested between 1-3 times per week. In the past seven days, according to the university’s online database, there have been 10 positive cases and 10,390 total tests conducted. MIT, which has set up a mobile walk-in testing trailer, has conducted 12,541 tests in the last week, recording five positive cases, according to the university. Boston University has conducted more than 100,000 tests since August, recording two positive cases on campus in the past week.
BU also published a strongly-worded warning last month to students who violate COVID guidelines: “There will be a few students who won’t take COVID-19 seriously and their stay in our community will be short-lived,” BU Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore wrote. “If you host or attend a large off-campus or on-campus gathering, social, or party, you will be suspended from Boston University.”
At the begining of September, eleven undergraduateswere dismissed from Northeastern University after violating social distancing guidelines.
BC students like sophomore Delaney Coyne are urging BC to respond similarly and are asking the school to pay for more testing. “BC has a $2.5 billion endowment,” Coyne said. “What's that money for, if not for a moment like this?”
Coyne says the school hasn’t been communicative about the scope of the problem and is putting the onus on students to stop the spread themselves.
“It feels like a petri dish that they won't put under the microscope,” Coyne said in an interview with GBH News Sunday. “If I get it, I will probably be fine. But what worries me is if I am asymptomatic and I give it to someone like a faculty member, a staff member or a student who is immunocompromised.”
Coyne shares a dormitory floor with more than 25 other young women, three of whom tested positive this week.
“I'm sharing a bathroom with them, and the school has told me nothing,” Coyne said. “They haven’t even reached out to see if I should get another test.”
Last week, the Boston Globereported that 13 members of the swim and diving teams had tested positive for COVID-19.
Senior Andrew Wilson is the captain of the water polo team. He says the school failed to notify student athletes or life guards who have been regularly using the same facilities, including the pool, bathrooms and showers.
“The news came from the Boston Globe, it didn't come from any of the institutional staff at our own school,” Wilson said in an interview with GBH. “As captain, I'm responsible for other members of my team, and the fact that I was not aware of this, that nobody else was aware of this, is really frustrating.”
Wilson says the school has not been clear about the severity of the pandemic on campus and has kept students in the dark. “When BC tells us that we can have a safe, full semester in-person, you want to believe that, and you want to trust the institution,” Wilson said. “But we are being set up to go right back into a campus where COVID-19 cases are becoming far too much to handle. It’s just an excuse to send us back and take all the tuition money we’ve paid for the semester.”
Prior to returning to campus, Boston College students signed alegal pledge to respect COVID guidelines, conduct a daily “self check” to monitor for symptoms, and maintain appropriate social distancing.
Dunn wouldn’t say if any students have been dismissed due to rule violations, or if tuition would be reimbursed. The school’s Board of Trustees increased tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year by 3.69%, bringing the overall annual cost of attendance to $75,422.
“We do not discuss disciplinary sanctions,” Dunn wrote in an email, “other than to say that any students who violate our code of conduct and rules this semester pertaining to hosting or attending parties will be held accountable.”
According to students like Wilson, Boston College isn’t the type of school to take the public shaming route.
“Northeastern made national news by sending their students home, by making it public and setting a national example,” Wilson said. “BC doesn't want to be known as a school with a high COVID rate, nor do they want to be known as a school that's taking students out a week after bringing them on.”
The school’s private approach to COVID cases extends beyond the residential sector: the protocols for faculty encourage discretion as well. In a Sept. 5 email to all adjunct teachers and teaching fellows, Associate Dean of Academics and Faculty Ana Martinez-Aleman sent a list of pointers for how to deal with a student who tests positive: contact tracers will reach out to students who test positive and anyone who has come within six feet of that student for more than 15 minutes. Students are not required to inform faculty members when they test positive, and faculty will not be notified by the school directly.
“Not only should we NOT state the name of any student who tests positive (and may email us with that info), we should NOT even say that someone has tested positive,” Martinez-Aleman wrote, citing the possibility of a violation of health information privacy laws. “This is because students may figure it out by process of elimination… we cannot discuss positive testing in any way with our students.”
Alisha Nguyen, a PhD student and adjunct professor, says she applied to teach her class online out of fear of exposing her two young children to the virus but was denied. After one of her students came forward and told her he had tested positive for COVID-19, Nguyen says she called the school and asked for a test and was told she could not come in for one.
“The nurse told me that because there’s only three people at BC responsible for contact tracing, if they have one student who tested positive, it’s basically impossible to reach everyone,” Nguyen said in an interview with GBH News. “They’re not doing contact tracing for classrooms, because students sit six feet apart. Now I realize they only set it up that way so that they don’t have to do contact tracing.”
The school did not respond when asked to verify its contact tracing policy when it comes to classrooms.
In response to apublic letter from Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, sent to the school on Saturday, BC has agreed to work with Newton and Boston’s health and human services departments to expand contact tracing. Fuller has also asked BC not to open any additional quarantine or isolation facilities off campus.
“We see what's happening on the Boston College campus, and it's impacting the health of our residents and the health of our city and our ability to do such important things such as reopen our public schools,” Fuller said in an interview. “We're also trying to get our residents back to work and our restaurants and retailers and other businesses back on their feet, and that all interacts with having a very quiet amount of COVID-19. It's anything but quiet on the Boston College campus right now.”
Senior Hollie Watts says she was “thrilled” to see Fuller’s letter, which she hopes will improve the testing process on campus.
“The thing is, they're testing the people that have symptoms and trying to do a bit of contact tracing,” Watts said in an interview. “But it’s disturbing to think about what happens if one person has a false negative. … How many times does that happen? To what extent is COVID-19 actually in our student body? You just don’t want to think about it.”
As an international student, Watts says she can only attend school by living on campus, where she shares a suite with five roommates and regularly finds herself in close contact with other students in common areas like the library or dining hall.
“It’s kind of a recipe for disaster for the people on this campus and living in close quarters,” Watts said. “They're saying all these things, but then there's no enforcement of it.”
In July, a group of Resident Assistants wrote a “letter of concern” to the school’s residential life office, asking to be given additional resources including PPE, financial compensation, and clarification of policies including enforcement of social distancing in the dorms. “RAs should not be expected to put their health and lives at increased risk during a global pandemic as frontline responders in these circumstances without increased support and compensation from the University,” the letter, signed by more than 50 RAs, reads.
In a July 6 email to students, Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley said that the university will test “students and staff in high-contact positions, such as Resident Assistants” on a “weekly basis.” In a follow-up email to RAs, Vice President of Residential Life George Arey confirmed that these weekly tests would take place “to check for the asymptomatic presence of the coronavirus.”
Despite these emails, a student RA who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing his position told GBH News he has only been allowed one test since the start of the semester.
“We got to school for training week, and that’s when we found out we were not going to be tested weekly,” he said, describing weekly testing as the “bare minimum” for a university’s COVID policies. “I was pissed, I think we all were. We were lied to, and out of the loop completely,” this RA said. “I never signed up to risk my life to be an RA."
BC spokesman Dunn didn’t respond to the RA’s specific complaint, but said in an email to GBH that all BC students have been tested “at least” once since the start of the semester. “All students working as RAs and in Dining Services received an email today to be tested this week, as scheduled.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of students enrolled at Boston College. This story has been updated to include the number of BC students currently on campus.