After a largely in-person fall semester, many students were optimistic about the prospect of fully returning to campus. However, kicking off the spring semester with two weeks of online instruction has made it apparent the campus community still has a long way to go. Particularly with the recent surge of the omicron variant, fundamental changes must be made at the levels of administration, academics and student life to ensure a safe return for all.
A two-week delay to in-person instruction allows time for the campus community to get tested before returning, get booster shots if eligible and potentially outlast the worst of the current wave of infections. Nonetheless, this passive strategy will not prevent a surge in cases upon a large-scale return to campus — at least not without the reinforcement of frequent COVID-19 testing.
Time and time again, regular mandated surveillance testing has proven to be a simple yet highly effective way to contain the spread. Nevertheless, this was not reinforced as a student policy during the fall semester, as UC Berkeley focused instead on symptomatic testing and strong contact tracing. As a result, testing is dependent on student discipline.
However, many students may be unwilling to commit to regular surveillance testing in fear of missing out on classes and exams that require physical attendance. Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said campus leaders are “strongly encouraging” faculty to eliminate grade incentives for students to attend class while sick.
Attendance requirements — and by extension the flexibility and support that students receive when sick — are still entirely dependent on each professor’s preference and personal judgment. While the campus claims to take contact tracing seriously, there is no requirement for students to show their green badges upon entering classrooms or test after being in close contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19.
These gaping policy holes will place the responsibility of classroom safety on professors and the self-discipline of students — both of which can be inconsistent, unreliable and dangerously limited. Campus leaders must implement and enforce a mandatory policy or standard procedure for classroom safety and necessary accommodations.
Randomly selecting a group of students to test each week, making rapid diagnostic tests readily available and enforcing consequences for students who refuse to test are just some ways administration can gradually increase testing. A simple green badge requirement for classroom entrance would also place more pressure on students to get tested and self-screen for symptoms. Most importantly, professors should be required to eliminate grade-incentivized attendance to lessen the academic repercussions many students fear when hesitating to test for COVID-19 or quarantine.
Frequent testing and quarantining upon receiving a positive result are simple, civic duties that can protect those around us and ensure a safe return to campus, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. Whether or not campus leaders uphold classroom safety policies or surveillance testing requirements, students must hold themselves and their peers accountable.