COVID-19 Testing Policy Update: The Transition to Optional Testing

A COVID-19 antigen test courtesy of Abby Chang for The Phoenix.

On Feb. 23, the COVID-19 Planning Group, consisting of numerous administrators and Chief of Infectious Control Committees Dr. Peter Axelrod, sent Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff an email detailing the new COVID-19 testing policy. They announced that the college will shift to optional testing starting the week of March 21, meaning that one more week of required testing will take place after Spring Break. 

Last semester, the college provided mandatory PCR tests once every two weeks for fully vaccinated students and weekly for those with medical or religious exemptions. Currently, all students, faculty, and staff are required to self-administer a rapid antigen test twice a week. The policy allows for more frequent testing with immediate results. However, it relies on all campus community members to report their results with honesty and test consistently.

In an interview with The Phoenix, an anonymous Residential Assistant expressed their distrust in the college’s ability to ensure accuracy of reported test results.. 

“It’s not good that they aren’t holding us accountable regarding testing. They should make us report a picture [of our tests] so that we can ensure that students are at least getting tested,” they said. 

Although the COVID-19 Planning Group cited a drop in cases both on campus and in the surrounding community as a factor in the change to optional testing, the college’s COVID-19 dashboard documents the opposite trend. Last week, the number of new student cases nearly doubled, rising from nine to seventeen. 

One student, “Lil,” ’25, reached out to The Phoenix via email to express concern over the new optional testing policy due to rising cases. 

“To me, those numbers don’t indicate that it’s time to make testing optional,” they said. Lily added that athletes, students, and faculty who leave campus frequently are the biggest risks. 

“At the very minimum, athletes because they frequently leave campus for competition, faculty or staff who live off campus, and students who take classes on [other campuses] should be testing as they bring the biggest risks back to our community,” they said.

The RA agreed, saying that the optional testing policy is not secure. 

“It’s almost like saying that they don’t really care about what happens on this campus anymore. Cases are still rising, and it makes this campus feel less safe,” they said. “At some point, I’m afraid it’s going to be just like it was my freshman year, where they were sending everybody home after spring break.”

In an email to The Phoenix, Vice President for Communications and COVID-19 Planning Group member Andy Hirsch addressed concerns surrounding the rise in student cases.  

“While we did see an increase in cases within the student body last week, the majority of them are connected, which means there’s no indication that there is community spread,” he said. 

Hirsch emphasized the importance of monitoring the college’s COVID-19 conditions as its institutional COVID guidelines continue to change.

“At the same time, it is a reminder that, while conditions have improved, COVID hasn’t gone away, and we must continue to exercise good judgment and common sense — perhaps even more so as we begin to loosen restrictions,” he wrote.

The college’s testing policies have adapted to contemporary COVID conditions throughout the pandemic. However, regulations for exposed individuals — anyone who has been unmasked within six feet of a COVID-positive person for at least fifteen minutes, per Worth Health Center — remain the same as they were last semester. Worth Health Center’s criteria for who qualifies as a close contact individual is consistent with CDC guidelines. Therefore, close contacts are permitted to attend class as long as they remain masked.

Lily described their experience as a close contact in previous weeks. 

“I was told to still go to all of my classes and was given no instruction on testing until I asked. Those few days when I didn’t know whether I actually had COVID or not were very conflicting because I’d rather not go to class or practice and risk infecting everyone, but the health center told me it was fine,” they said.

It was later confirmed that Lily had not contracted COVID. 

Drake Roth ’25 relayed a different experience as a close contact to an individual who tested positive for COVID, stating that Worth Health Center was clear in giving advice and instructions. 

“I believe the close contact policies are sufficient enough. Considering the now low-severity symptoms and the new college testing policies, the instructions given to close contacts are clear … and in effect long enough to prevent the spread of COVID,” Roth said. 

Hirsch attested that COVID cases on campus have remained mild. “Those who do test positive and are up-to-date on their vaccinations — as the vast majority of our community is — are experiencing mild (if any) symptoms,” he said. 

Throughout the 2021-2022 academic year, the college has adjusted multiple policies in hopes of returning back to semi-normalcy. On Jan. 7, President Valerie Smith announced that spectators would be prohibited from campus events such as sports games. A little over a month later, on Feb. 11, Dean of Student Life Nathan Miller announced that spectators were authorized to attend campus events again. Alcohol Registered Events (A.R.E.s) were prohibited during the end of the Fall 2021 semester on Dec. 9, and they have just recently been permitted starting Feb. 14. 

The return of A.R.E.s is a point of contention among students regarding the new testing policy. Although the college has limited the capacity of these events to 50 people, students have still expressed concern over the high-risk nature of A.R.E.s. 

The RA expressed similar thoughts, saying, “If I was the RA on-call while an A.R.E. was happening, I would at least want to make sure that everyone was masked, which I doubt is currently happening at these events.”

In the midst of constantly changing protocols and guidelines, students are hopeful that fellow Swatties will fulfill their role in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. 

“I hope the COVID-19 Planning Group knows that students care more about being safe and stopping the spread, which is only possible by knowing who has COVID, rather than having a low positive test-rate. I hope that students demonstrate this by signing up for optional testing. Yes, you have to sign up! Tests aren’t just going to be available,” Lily said. 

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