Delayed Test Results Mark Troubled Return to University

Griffin Perrault, Editor-in-Chief

Nearly two years after original reports of the virus resulted in nationwide university shutdowns, the novel coronavirus continues to menace university planning across the globe. Higher learning in general has struggled to adapt to a disorienting disease environment, made still more complex by a proliferation of variants, diverse in their virulence and contagiousness. Particularly, the dizzying rise in cases of the “Omicron variant” has freshly overwhelmed hospitals and schools since its first discovery in November of 2021.

Universities who had sought to “return to normal” last semester now found themselves reimposing remote learning protocols, filling isolation housing, and mandating COVID-19 testing for their student populations. Bucknell was one such institution; on January 5th President Bravman announced a pre-arrival testing requirement requiring “all Bucknell students, including those who are vaccinated, to take a COVID-19 test three days or 72 hours before arrival on campus in order to begin classes.” Test kits were shipped to students’ permanent home addresses in advance of their arrival to ensure the appropriate identification and isolation of COVID-positive students.

But the testing kits posed challenges for the beginning of the spring semester. Late arrival of tests at students’ homes often complicated their arrival and enrollment, especially since those without available negative test results were instructed not to attend class. “Due to delays with some test processing as well as inclement weather,” Dean of Students Amy Badal wrote as late as Jan. 18, the first day of classes, “your test results may not yet be available.” Students were instructed to contact their professors to explain their absence, with the assurance that “they will be flexible as we begin the semester.” 

 Matt McMullen ’24 received his test on Thursday, Jan. 13, six days prior to the start of classes. “I didn’t receive my results until the following Wednesday (almost a week!),” McMullen noted, explaining that he “had to miss the first day of classes on Tuesday and [] was starting to get anxious.” Matt was one of a number of  students who missed their first classes due to testing delays. 

“It’s ridiculous that it took almost a week for the results to arrive,” McMullen added, “when I actually should’ve received them days before.”

When asked about the number of students with outstanding test results on the first day of classes, Director of Communications Mike Ferlazzo explained that since “results were still coming in on that day and some students did not arrive on campus until later in the week,” a count of students who missed class as a result of the policy was indeterminate. 

In his Jan. 5 email announcing the mandatory testing, Bravman did offer alternatives for students who were not able to utilize and return their test kits in advance of their return. COVID-19 PCR testing was available to students upon arrival to campus; the University also offered students the opportunity to obtain PCR testing on their own time and submit results to Bucknell’s Medical Records service. However, students who chose the first option were not instructed to quarantine after their testing was completed, the results of which took as many as two days to return. Many of those returning early to campus – including those who would later return positive results – had interaction with other students on campus for several days prior to receiving notice of a positive test. 

When prompted about University plans to track COVID, Catherine O’Neil, medical director at the University’s Student Health Office, noted that the office was “testing all symptomatic students, as long as there’s not another diagnosable illness, such as flu, strep or mono present.” While students will not be required to submit to weekly testing, O’Neil conceded, prevalence of COVID-19 on campus will instead be monitored through surveillance and analysis of University wastewater. 

O’Neil also acknowledged the increased contagiousness of Omicron over other variants of COVID-19. “Thankfully,” she added, “all of our students are completely up to date, except for those who were granted exemptions,” and thus “if they do develop a breakthrough infection, they will likely have minimal symptoms.”

As the number of coronavirus cases on the Bucknell COVID-19 tracker mount – with 33 active on-campus cases at time of writing – murmurs abound about the possibility of a “remote option.” During the fall and spring semesters of the 2020-2021 academic year, students were offered the opportunity to attend classes remotely; contingencies that encouraged use of the remote option included students who had a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, or those exposed to a student who later tested positive. However during the fall 2021 semester, in the wake of a vaccination requirement by the University, the “remote option” was abrogated and all students were again required to attend classes in person.

When asked about the possibility of a remote option for the spring semester, Ferlazzo expressed confidence in the in-person model observed during the fall. “As President Bravman stated in his Jan. 5 “Return to Campus” email, “All courses will be taught in person, without a remote option,” he noted in an email response to the Bucknellian. “We’ll continue to monitor the health conditions moving forward, but we hope to get through the semester in-person, just like we did last semester.”

“We know the proper mitigation methods that are effective, but we also know what’s best for a Bucknell education,” Ferlazzo explained, “and that’s in-person instruction.”

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