Swarthmore’s Swabbing Strategy Switch: Testing Protocol Changes for Spring Semester

Despite the continued rollout of several highly effective vaccines, COVID-19 remains a major public health threat. With roughly 100 more students on campus this Spring semester than the Fall semester, according to an email exchange with the Registrar’s Office, the college continues to mandate testing for all residential students.

Mary Reilly, assistant director of Student Health and Wellness, first informed residential students of the Spring 2021 testing protocol in an email on February 12. In the email, Reilly announced a two-phase testing program for on-campus students along with a shift from Everlywell, the testing vendor used during the Fall 2020 semester, to a new vendor, GENETWORx.

Phase 1, or arrival testing, consisted of three antigen tests, otherwise known as rapid tests, administered over the course of fourteen days. Students completed the first test upon move-in, the second a week later, and the third, final test roughly two weeks after arrival on campus.
In an email exchange with The Phoenix, Reilly explained that Phase 1 of the college’s testing protocol was made possible by increased resource availability and more research-based evidence encouraging the use of antigen tests. It is unclear what resources have become more available.

“The use of antigen testing was deemed the best choice of test for its ability to rapidly identify infections at the outset to prevent introduction to campus those first couple weeks,” wrote Reilly.

Differing in their biological makeup, antigen tests detect proteins specific to the virus, and PCR tests detect viral DNA. Antigen tests, though less accurate, generate more expedient results than PCR tests by a significant margin. Turnaround time for antigen testing can be as little as fifteen minutes, while PCR tests take about two to three days to produce results. Both tests involve a nasal swab.

On February 19, the college announced a return to PCR testing and the beginning of Phase 2 of the testing protocol, which will remain implemented for the remainder of the semester. Within Phase 2, students attend testing appointments on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Tarble Pavilion after registering for a fifteen-minute testing slot within the designated testing period through a new app from GENETWORx called Aura. While students are encouraged to arrive during their fifteen-minute testing slot, students who arrive on Monday at a time outside of their reserved slot are not turned away. By contrast, Fall residential students were able to drop in for testing at any point within their designated testing period which lasted between four to seven hours.

The testing process itself has also changed. Previously, students registered test kits distributed by members of the Student Health and Wellness staff using their Everlywell accounts before swabbing themselves. Now, students report to Tarble Pavilion and show their confirmation barcodes to GENETWORx staff to have their noses swabbed by trained medical professionals.

Reilly described some of the benefits of having a single testing date as well as using outsourced staff for test administration instead of Student Health and Wellness staff members.

“[The] streamlined system of specimen collection by trained staff helps to decrease packaging waste by eliminating the need for hundreds of packaged testing kits. Outsourced testing staff [also] allows for the Health and Wellness Center staff to focus their energies and time on providing excellent college health services in the clinic rather than spending hours staffing testing themselves,” she said.

While some students might appreciate no longer having to self-swab, others expressed concerns about the new testing format’s accuracy and effectiveness. Josue Ochoa ’24, a student who has lived on campus for both Fall and Spring semesters, described some of these concerns in an interview with The Phoenix.

”To be completely honest with you, I think that the [testing] method that is used as of late is not as effective as what we had … in the first semester. Last semester, we had very direct instructions on how to do this method, and it was always like: have your fingertip at the line, make sure it goes all the way, and twirl it ten times and swab. It’s been different [now] because sometimes the people that are giving the test will barely insert the thing,” said Ochoa.

While the particulars of the college’s testing protocol have changed, students have also perceived a change in the college’s enforcement of test protocol through the increased severity of consequences for missed tests.

After missing a test in the Fall, students received an email from Dean Miller relaying an official warning of a Garnet Pledge violation. Now, students who miss the Monday testing window receive a warning as well as directions to enter isolation housing until registering for and taking another test.

In an email to The Phoenix, Dean Nathan Miller provided an overview of the college’s protocol for missed tests. He described that early in the Spring semester, students who missed a test were required to enter a period of self-quarantine in their residential dorm. After receiving this email, students were not permitted to leave their residential dorm unless they were picking up a to-go meal from Swarthmore dining services. Their OneCard access was suspended at 9 p.m. of that day and re-initiated the following day after taking a make-up test.

Once PCR testing resumed in mid-February, students began receiving emails requiring them to move into the Inn at Swarthmore for isolation housing. This has remained college policy for the majority of the semester. As stipulated in emails received by students from Dean Miller following missed tests, violation of quarantine housing may likely result in the revocation of housing privileges themselves.

In an interview with The Phoenix, anonymous student “John” described his experience in isolation housing after missing a scheduled test this Spring. Using an electronic system, Sign-Up Genius, to schedule the permitted thirty minutes of outside time per day while in isolation housing, John encountered difficulties with scheduling that prevented him from going outside. The first time John attempted to schedule outside time, he missed the daily deadline. The deadline to schedule outside time for any given day is 24 hours in advance.

“The room and food were nice … I think the restriction of only 30 minutes of outside time a day was very harsh, and I didn’t like it. The electronic system that they had us use to sign up for the outdoor time was terrible and terribly managed… So… there were two or three days where I couldn’t go outside because of poor management of the way they’d set it up,” he said.

John also felt that the current one-day testing format does not sufficiently take into account the strains of student course load.

“I was swamped with work,” he said of the time he missed his test “I was basically … in a hole … in my room, just overcome with anxiety and working. [So] I missed [the test] and…I definitely think… [that] however many testing windows [are available to us during the day], one day of the week is … not ideal.”

While students perceived a change in the consequences associated with missed tests, Dean Miller maintained that students in the Fall were always required to self-quarantine after missing a test.

“Our response to a missed test has not changed from the fall to the spring semester. Students who miss a test have always been required to engage in a period of quarantine until they have been able to take a make-up test,” Miller wrote.

Despite this, some students residing on campus this past Fall claimed to be unaware of this requirement. In an interview with The Phoenix, anonymous student “Grace” described her experience after missing a test in the Fall and affirmed that she was never explicitly told to self-quarantine.

“When I missed my test, I got a strict email saying when I could make it up and that my Garnet Pledge had been violated. They turned off my OneCard pretty quickly … and I had to have my friends let me in and out of buildings. It was turned back on after I had the [make-up] test the next day. There was never anything written about self-quarantining or isolating in the email [that I received from Dean Miller]; it just gave me a time and place to make up my test,” she said.

Although the temporary revocation of OneCard access might have implied a self-quarantine requirement, upon review of the email “Grace” received from Dean Miller, The Phoenix found that there was no language mandating her to enter into a period of self-quarantine.

While self-quarantine may have been a missed-test requirement in the Fall, the transition from self-quarantine to isolation housing in the Inn at Swarthmore has been a new development in the college’s protocol for missed tests. For some students, these new consequences productively encourage students to remain attentive to the current testing protocol.

“It puts pressure on actually going and getting the test done, which is really good. That aspect of this semester has really helped in making sure that these students are actually getting their tests done. It adds that extra bit of security if I know that this is everyone coming together to get testing and everyone is, for the most part, coming out negative, then it does give that sense of healthiness within the campus,” said Ochoa.

Other students, however, feel that being placed in isolation housing is an unfair punishment for missing a test when other students are given the opportunity to retake their missed tests.

“[After leaving isolation housing], I didn’t think it [was] fair. The reasoning being [that] the next week, a bunch of people missed their tests [and] they were in [isolation housing] for one day, or something. Then they [had the opportunity to take] another test because … [maybe] enough people had missed the test, that it would have been probably … logistically difficult, maybe, to have all those people gone for a week,” said John.

As the college prepares for the potential return of all students to campus next Fall and continues to distribute vaccines, further updates and changes in the current testing protocol will likely occur. The Phoenix will continue to report on these changes as they take place.

Image courtesy of Laurence Kesterson for The Phoenix.

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