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‘We are still in a pandemic’: Students report new difficulties with University’s COVID-19 response

and | Friday, September 17, 2021

As a nationwide vaccine rollout began in early 2021 and continued in full force through the following months, many across the country felt a strong sense of hope, one that didn’t exist just a few months prior.

With the opening of a mass vaccination clinic on the University’s campus in March, the Notre Dame community experienced this hope far earlier than many. The resulting vaccination rates — over 90% of the student body as of April 15, a resounding success in the eyes of administration — led many to believe a normal fall semester was likely.

But now that the fall semester has finally come — bringing with it the realities of COVID-19 variants and breakthrough cases — certain remnants of last year’s safety guidelines persist. The COVID-19 dashboard is still up and running, now updating weekly. Students are expected to wear face masks in certain classrooms and department buildings. The testing center remains open, performing tests only on students who are unvaccinated or experiencing specific symptoms.

However, some students have expressed difficulty obtaining COVID-19 tests on account of not meeting the updated testing standards of University Health Services (UHS).

For instance, after coming down with a cold, senior Caroline Burton said she called UHS to ask for a test as a precaution, wanting to make sure it was not “anything worse.”

“I basically was told that I didn’t have severe enough symptoms to get tested,” Burton said. 

She decided to seek a test off campus and subsequently tested negative. Once her symptoms persisted for five to six days, Burton called UHS once more and, because of her ongoing symptoms, was able to receive a test.

Although she tested negative again, Burton said she feels very confused about the new protocols on campus.

“It’s just kind of problematic in the way that it doesn’t seem like they’re trying to really prevent the spread,” Burton said. “They seem [to] have a limited amount of tests.”

University spokesperson Dennis Brown said students are referred to testing on campus when there is reason to believe that a student may have symptoms of COVID.

“The medical professionals in University Health Services are assessing patients’ symptoms and referring only those with COVID-19 symptoms for testing,” Brown said. 

The University’s COVID-19 information website lists three symptoms that qualify students, faculty and staff for a COVID-19 test: high fevers, difficulty breathing and loss of taste or smell. However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) — whose guidance the University has followed throughout the pandemic — reports that COVID-19 can manifest in a variety of other ways, including but not limited to chills, cough, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, nausea, vomiting, congestion, a runny nose or a sore throat.

At some colleges and universities across the country, there are no requirements for receiving a COVID-19 test, and many schools encourage students to get tested at any time — regardless of symptoms. Lexie Jeffries, a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, says students can schedule an appointment online and get tested “whenever [they] want.”

“They want us to get tested,” Jeffries said. “They have signs on campus that say, ‘If you feel sick, don’t go to class; go get tested.’”

‘I don’t think the ER was happy about it’: Close contact denied test on campus

On Monday, Aug. 30, sophomore Maddie Czerwiec was notified that she was a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Following the University’s updated contact tracing guidelines for vaccinated individuals, she wore her mask indoors and called to schedule a testing appointment four days after her last exposure. 

However, Czerwiec said she was told she was not classified as an “intense contact” and could therefore not obtain a test on campus unless she was symptomatic.

“That was kind of really discouraging to hear because I know at other universities, regardless of your symptoms, you can just go get a test as a precaution,” she said. 

Czerwiec continued to monitor her symptoms and submitted a symptomatic form the next day after losing her sense of taste and smell. By the time Czerwiec contacted UHS, she said they were not accepting appointments as it was a Saturday and the testing center was closed. Beginning in the fall 2021 semester, the University Testing Center decreased its hours of operation, now offering no weekend appointments.

After searching for a same-day test at CVS and Walgreens, Czerwiec could not find a test within a 25-mile radius and eventually went to the emergency room.

“I don’t think the ER was happy about it, and I wasn’t happy about it,” she said. 

Czerwiec received a positive test result. Assuming the University would not send her to it isolation while the testing center was closed, Czerwiec’s parents arranged for her to stay in a hotel room until the following Monday. Come Monday, Czerwiec was tested by the University and sent to isolation at the Landings, an off-campus apartment complex. She said her official 10-day isolation period began that day.

Brown said vaccinated close contacts are not required to quarantine by the University but should receive a test.

“As communicated earlier this semester, vaccinated students, faculty and staff who do not have any symptoms and are identified by a member of the contact tracing team as a close contact of a COVID-19 positive case do not need to quarantine but should wear a mask indoors and take a COVID test on day four after exposure,” Brown said.

‘I just wish they would stop acting like COVID is over’: Lack of remote learning frustrates students

After noticing a slight loss of taste at the end of last week, junior Cait Heaney decided to request a symptomatic test through a form located on the University’s COVID-19 information website.

Unlike the others, Heaney did not have trouble obtaining a test — she received an appointment for a rapid test the same day and tested positive — but problems quickly arose after she was placed in isolation in an off-campus apartment.

“I’m not allowed to Zoom into any of my classes. My professors just had to record each of their lectures and send them to me,” Heaney said. “So, it’s hard to stay up to date on everything. I’m falling behind a little bit because it takes them several hours to get me their lectures. I tend to do homework in the morning and watch lectures at night.”

Heaney’s inability to attend classes during her isolation period is a result of the University’s recent policy that professors no longer need to offer dual-mode learning for their courses in the fall 2021 semester. The decision was made after the pandemic “reaffirmed the importance of in-person teaching and learning,” according to an Aug. 6 email from Provost Marie Lynn Miranda.

A political science and economics major, Heaney said the quality of the recorded lectures makes learning difficult, as chalkboards and whiteboards are often difficult to read.

“For some of my professors, I can’t see the screen or the whiteboard, so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I just have to rely on what they’re saying to keep up, but that’s not super helpful when they’re writing out proofs to equations on the board.”

Heaney said she wishes the University’s current COVID-19 procedures met the same standard as last years’.

“I just wish they would stop acting like COVID is over,” she said. “It’s not; it still exists. So getting rid of surveillance testing and dual-classroom abilities — basically everything we had last year — you’re just hurting people who are getting the virus, and you’re not staying on top of it… We are still in a pandemic; it did not just disappear.”

Senior Elizabeth Hoch said she had similar problems of being denied access to remote learning — but on a much larger scale. After being denied the opportunity to complete last fall semester virtually, she said she and her brother Miguel, a junior at Notre Dame, started a petition asking the University to offer students an online option. But when the University refused, both siblings made the decision to take a leave of absence during the entire 2020-2021 academic year.

Now back on campus and graduating a year later, Hoch said she’s still concerned about the University’s response to the ongoing pandemic. After recently coming into contact with multiple students who were later isolated or contact traced, she was told by the University Testing Center she did not qualify for an asymptomatic test.

“I would just like tests to be available,” Hoch said. “I’d like the option to get tested when I feel like I’ve been exposed — because I do feel like I’ve been exposed, and it makes me nervous. I’d like to be able to get tested without having to go through high fever, loss of taste and difficulty breathing.”

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About Evan McKenna

Evan is a senior at Notre Dame from Morristown, Tennessee majoring in psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing. He is currently serving as the Managing Editor of The Observer, and believes in the immutable power of a well-placed em dash. Reach him at [email protected] or @evanjmckenna on Twitter.

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About Alysa Guffey

Alysa is a junior pursuing a major in history with minors in digital marketing and journalism, ethics and democracy. While she calls Breen-Phillips her home on campus, she is originally from Indianapolis. She currently serves as the Notre Dame News Editor.

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