College Relaxes Covid Protocols Amid Uptick in Cases

Despite an increase in cases, the college has relaxed some of its Covid restrictions and opted not to reinstate surveillance testing at this time. The decision reflects a shift away from institutional management of community health to a reliance on personal responsibility, a Sept. 8 email stated.

The college has relaxed some of its Covid restrictions and opted not to reinstate surveillance testing at this time, despite a recent uptick in Covid cases and some concern from community members. The decision was announced in a Sept. 8 email to students, staff, and faculty informing the community of the Covid protocols that would go into effect following Sept. 12.

In the email, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein, Chief Student Affairs Officer and Dean of Students Liz Agosto, and Chief Human Resources Officer Kate Harrington acknowledged the increase in cases — as of Sept. 13, there are 44 active student cases, with 65 students having tested positive since classes started — and concern of community members, but explained the reason for keeping testing voluntary.

“While the College continues to provide a voluntary, robust testing program with both PCR and antigen tests available, top public health experts state that the highly transmissible nature of the omicron variant means that surveillance testing (and contact tracing) is no longer an effective means of preventing infection in a community,” the email stated. “Additionally, universal testing in the absence of symptoms, while very important in the early days of COVID-19 when infection posed a much greater risk to members of our community, is much less relevant in a community like ours that is protected by vaccinations and boosters and in which treatment is available for those who might become ill.”

“The protocol changes below … reflect the increasingly endemic nature of COVID-19 and a gradual shift away from institutional management of community health—which is not a sustainable long-term strategy—to individuals taking greater responsibility for protecting the health of themselves and those around them,” the email added.

The updated protocols loosened some restrictions that were previously in place. KN95 masks remain required when entering, exiting, and getting food at dining locations, as well as in instructional spaces, face-to-face service locations, the Testing Center, and the Health Center, but are now optional in all other spaces. Protocols surrounding building access, capacity limits, and visitors are as communicated in the college’s Aug. 5 email, with students allowed to have outside visitors in residence halls starting on Sept. 12.

Also as communicated in the Aug. 5 email, starting on Sept. 19, the college’s Covid tests will no longer be administered by the Testing Center. Instead, individuals will administer tests and link their samples to an online interface themselves, with the Testing Center only providing and collecting the test kits.

The email concluded by encouraging all eligible community members to get the recently FDA-approved bivalent booster, noting that the college will make a decision about whether to require the new boosters in the coming weeks.

Some students remain concerned about the lack of surveillance testing. Although the email stated that all community members are expected to take responsibility for testing when they are symptomatic, Sam Hodges ’23 thinks that certain pressures at Amherst incentivize students to not test when they feel sick.

“People feel a lot of pressure to go to class, … so even if people have a bit of symptoms, they might try and excuse it away so they don’t have to miss out on coursework,” they said.

Henry Bassett ’23 noted that he feels “much more in the dark about how much Covid there is on campus” under the voluntary testing system. He expressed appreciation, though, that testing remains available for anyone who wants to take advantage of it.

Certainly not everyone is concerned about the spread of Covid, or takes seriously the guidance surrounding testing and other practices. In Hodges’ view, this only provides more reason for the college to enforce protocols at an institutional level, instead of putting responsibility on individuals — particularly immunocompromised individuals — to keep themselves safe.

“I kind of see this as just another way where Amherst is failing disabled people at large by saying, ‘If there is anything where Covid might be a bit more of a concern, it doesn’t matter, you have to figure that out,’” they said.