A graduate student at Boston College who is teaching both in-person and online courses this semester says he doesn’t feel safe because COVID testing on campus is “completely inadequate.”
“I've been tested one time before school started — before I was exposed to any students or anyone else on campus,” said the graduate student, Michael, who asked only his first name be used to avoid retaliation. “My course has almost 30 people and a third of them have been placed in quarantine two weeks into the semester, and I haven't received any additional testing.”
At the same time, football players and other in-season athletes are being tested for COVID-19 weekly, much more frequently than other students, faculty and staff. It’s causing some professors and graduate students to question the Jesuit school’s mission.
“I think who Boston College has chosen to test and who they haven’t reveals their priorities,” said Michael, a teaching fellow and PhD candidate in the humanities.
Other part-time professors, though, say they got tested the first week, but no mandatory tests since then — only random ones. They describe the situation as “Trumpian” — test less and fewer positive cases will be recorded.
“The Trump reference is offensive," BC Spokesman Jack Dunn said. "Boston College has a very good strategy in place.”
Dunn said the college is testing athletes weekly because it belongs to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which requires all members to test them at least once a week.
“And that may increase as the seasons actually begin,” he said, explaining that BC also targets some faculty and students for testing. “The student who works in dining services or in residential life, they will be tested more frequently because they are in high-contact positions.”
But will those faculty and students in high-contact positions be tested as frequently as athletes?
Dunn said BC is “committed to testing them regularly," adding, "perhaps less frequently than the aforementioned student-athletes, but we’re committed to testing them. We want them to be healthy.”
By comparison, Boston University, another NCAA Division 1 school, says its testing program for student-athletes is the same as its testing program for all students. Two other local D1 schools, Harvard and Northeastern universities, suspended their sports programs with the goal of rescheduling them in spring 2021.
The recent spike in cases at Boston College has provoked a public backlash. Last week, the state said it would take over the college’s contact tracing.
That spike has also put a spotlight on how much colleges with big sports programs are testing athletes compared to other students, faculty and staff. The Big Ten Conference decided last week it will play sports after all, and will offer players daily, rapid testing. Some higher education observers say the pandemic is exposing a misplaced priority on athletics — rather than academics.
“We live in a society where sports is definitely placed on a pedestal,” said Joseph Cooper, who teaches sports leadership and administration at UMass Boston. In his research this summer looking at schools with big sports programs, he’s found it difficult to gather accurate information about how often faculty, staff and students who are not athletes are being tested.
Cooper says he understands why some see this approach as favoring college athletes, but he says it’s not so clear cut.
“When you're talking about football at some of these schools, the level of contact, there's no social-distancing,” he said. “Whereas in the classroom, the cafeteria, the rec center, you can have a little bit better control of social-distancing and wearing masks.”
Harvard Sociologist Tony Jack disagrees with that philosophy.
“The bending over that universities are doing to quote unquote protect their athletes so that they can have seasons is troubling to me,” said Jack, who played football at Amherst College and authored "The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students."
Jack says colleges should not be spending big money on testing athletes if they’re not investing equal resources to help students and instructors access the internet and computers, housing and food and mental health services.
“If we are not willing to invest in these measures, we shouldn’t be investing so much extra resources into assuring that we have a season this year if we can't even have a semester,” he said.
BC spokesman Jack Dunn argues the college is being singled out because it’s the only school in the Boston area that plays bigtime football.
“That shouldn't diminish our academic reputation,” he said. “When the Jesuits founded the school in 1863, they chose the motto ‘Ever to Excel,’ and we try to excel in all facets of our existence in the classroom and on the playing field.”