Who returns, who gets tested? New England schools differ in COVID-19 response

A sign that reads, "Practice physical distancing" is pictured on President's Lawn on Sept. 6. Ann Marie Burke / The Tufts Daily

On Tufts’ campus, “The Mods” is a term used to refer to isolation housing utilized to stop the spread of the coronavirus. At Boston College (BC), “the Mods” is a funky, on-campus housing option for seniors, and it has been one of the campus’ hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus.

In the face of the uncertainty and challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the country had to decide if and how to bring students back to campus. These choices differed greatly, even among schools with a number of similarities. 

Tufts’ fall reopening plan significantly differs from that of other NESCAC schools, such as Bowdoin and Amherst, and other Boston area schools, including BC.

Who returns to campus? Bowdoin places stricter limits than Tufts, other schools

The majority of Tufts students opted to return to campus this fall after being given the option to return to campus, study remotely or take a leave of absence. On-campus residence halls are operating at reduced capacity, with additional space in The Mods for isolation and in Blakeley Hall for quarantine. 

In contrast, Bowdoin welcomed back about 40% of the more than 1,800 enrolled students this fall, including all first-year and transfer students, students with home situations that make remote learning difficult and a number of senior honor students who require access to space on campus. All other sophomores, juniors and seniors had to remain off campus and take classes online for the fall semester. 

Some students have taken issue with Bowdoin’s plan to primarily bring first-year students back, while other New England schools have not set restrictions on who can return to campus. 

“A great deal of resentment, I think, was stirred up among the senior class as a result. It felt like, for many of my peers and friends in the Class of 2021, it kind of felt like Bowdoin was abandoning them to a certain degree,” Brendan Murtha, a senior at Bowdoin, said. 

The Bowdoin campus remains closed to the public for the fall semester. Murtha, who lives just off campus, has not been able to enter campus at all.

This also means that students living on campus are not able to meet or interact with students living off campus. Clubs that normally run in-person programming have had to adapt to a primarily virtual format, Murtha said. 

Murtha, a student leader for the Bowdoin Naturalists, a club on campus that fosters an understanding of local ecology and natural history, hosted a nature walk for first-year students after discussions with the administration. This was the first time Murtha could interact with students on campus and get a sense of what the first-year experience is like. He felt that students are facing a serious mental toll as they are carrying heavy course loads without the normal outlets to decompress and socialize.

On Sept. 13, Bowdoin moved from “orange” to “yellow” status, which allowed for the loosening of some restrictions. Bowdoin started the semester in the orange” status, which prohibited students from leaving campus without permission from the administration. All gatherings were capped at 20 people, classes and extracurriculars were outside in tents or remote, dining was to-go only, common areas in residence halls were closed and masks were required in almost all situations. With the transition to “yellow,” students are now able to leave campus for essential needs, instruction and extracurricular events can take place in designated rooms, common areas are open and access to buildings has increased. 

President of Amherst College Biddy Martin announced plans for the fall semester on July 1. The goal was to bring 1,200 to 1,250 students to campus, or about 60% of total enrollment. Priority for the fall was given to first-year students, transfer students, sophomores, seniors set to graduate at the end of the fall semester and seniors who were abroad in the 2019–20 academic year. Senior thesis writers who needed on-campus resources or students with home situations unsuitable to remote learning could petition to study on campus. 

The campus is currently at Level 2 Operating Status, meaning members of the community are expected to follow personal safety measures, gatherings can have no more than 10 people and no visitors are allowed on campus. Higher levels indicate stricter measures that could be implemented if there are increased cases or exposure. 

All students were given single rooms, following a staggered move-in period, along with reduced density in residence halls. 

Renz Toledo, a junior at Amherst, chose to stay at home. Initially, he was told that as a junior, he would not be able to return to campus. However, even after Amherst revised its policy and allowed juniors to request being allowed to return to campus, Toledo decided that as an immunocompromised person it was safer for him to remain at home. 

BC announced its intention to bring students back to campus on May 19. In July, the college published an extensive reopening plan. All students were welcomed back to campus, though students also had the option of studying fully remotely. 

Students who chose to return to campus had to sign the Eagles Care Pledge, which outlined the health precautions and guidelines students are expected to adhere to this semester. Off-campus students are not permitted into on-campus residence halls. For students living on campus, most residential units are permitted one guest at a time, according to BC’s Housing Addendum

Due to the more urban campus environment of BC, Caitlyn Neville, a junior at BC, said she hasn’t seen many people outside. BC has instead expanded the number of indoor facilities available for students to reserve. 

How are classes conducted? Tufts, Bowdoin go mostly virtual, BC hosts 60% of classes in person

Tufts has offered classes in virtual, in-person and hybrid formats for the fall semester. The academic calendar remains unchanged, but the administration announced on Sept. 25 that any student who travels for Thanksgiving break cannot return to campus and must finish the remainder of the semester remotely. 

At Bowdoin, the majority of classes are taught online, even for students on campus. There is the opportunity for classes to be held outside in tents or in designated rooms for on-campus classes.

Bowdoin has partnered with Apple to provide each student with an iPad Pro with WiFi and cellular connectivity, an Apple Pencil 2 and Apple Magic Keyboard so all students have access to online classes and to aid in virtual collaboration, according to an article by the Bowdoin Orient. 

Classes at Amherst are offered in multiple formats, with in-person teaching taking place in outdoor tents or in socially-distanced classrooms, Toledo said. All classes with more than 35 students are taught in a remote format, and classes are scheduled throughout the day to account for students in different time zones.

At Amherst, classes are set to end before Thanksgiving, with study periods and exams being remote for all students. 

At BC, about 60% of classes are offered in person, in de-densified classroom spaces. Some virtual classes are synchronous while others are asynchronous. Administrators ensured that some virtual classes are offered in the early morning or late afternoon to accommodate international students who chose to stay home, according to an Aug. 3 letter.

Neville, who chose to return to campus, said for the classes she attends in person, desks are spaced about three feet apart. When students enter and leave the classroom, they must wipe down the desks and are required to wear masks during in-person classes.

BC said that while it currently plans to hold in-person classes until Dec. 10, it will continue to monitor the public health situation and will decide at the end of October whether or not to send students home at Thanksgiving and hold the last few weeks of the semester entirely virtual.

Who gets tested? BC opts for targeted testing strategy while others routinely test entire student body 

Tufts has experienced lower than expected COVID-19 infection rates this fall, in part due to regular testing, campus norms around mask wearing and isolation and quarantine measures. 

Since Aug. 3, there have been 27 positive COVID-19 cases among students, staff and faculty on the Medford/Somerville campus.  

Bowdoin tested students three times a week for the first two weeks of the semester, and then twice a week, using a self-administered nasal swab, for the remainder of the semester. Additionally, faculty and staff are tested once or twice a week, depending on how often they interact with students. 

Bowdoin is providing weekly COVID-19 testing to all students living off campus in an effort to keep the greater Brunswick community safe. Students living off campus receive take-home tests and are supposed to be notified by email with their results within 72 hours. 

To date, there have been three cases of COVID-19 on the Bowdoin campus, out of more than 18,000 tests for students, faculty and staff. All students who tested positive were placed in isolation, and those in contact with the positive individuals were quarantined. 

Students at Amherst are required to be tested three times a week. Those who test positive are immediately quarantined, and people who have been in the vicinity of an individual who tested positive receive an email suggesting they quarantine and get tested, Toledo said. 

Amherst has had five cases of COVID-19 since July 13 after administering almost 30,000 tests, with one active case currently.

Tufts, Bowdoin, Amherst and BC are all partnering with the Broad Institute for testing. 

BC only regularly tests students with high exposure risks, such as nursing students completing practicums. For the rest of the approximately 10,000 students, BC administers at least 1,000 tests per week to a random sample of students, with adjustments in surveillance testing as coronavirus cases fluctuate. BC has had 190 positives since Aug. 16. 

The testing situation at BC has frustrated many students. 

“A lot of students have been unhappy with their testing plan, especially compared with other schools around us,” Neville said. 

Some students even started a petition asking that BC quarantine all students for two weeks, and then institute a testing program that mandates all students be tested twice a week.

After an initial outbreak of more than 70 students at the beginning of September, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took over BC’s contract tracing program in an effort to better control the virus’ spread across campus.

When a student at BC tests positive, they have the option of either going home or isolating in Hotel Boston, the facility that BC acquired for isolation housing. Neville estimated that about half of the students who test positive choose to go home, with the other half going to Hotel Boston.

Adjusting to campus life: Different experiences for every campus, student 

Murtha is displeased with some aspects of Bowdoin’s fall reopening plan, especially since many students felt the administration did not listen to their concerns. Yet he also understands that Bowdoin is working hard to ensure the safety of its students.

“It’s an interesting fine line that is struck between safety and also just a general feeling of discontent and antagonism,” Murtha said.

From speaking to first-years, Murtha got a sense of what the first-year experience at Bowdoin is like now. The honeymoon period of the novelty of being on campus has begun to wear off, Murtha believes. 

“It was interesting to get an insider scoop on what the first-year experience at Bowdoin is like right now, because it really isn’t,” Murtha said. “For us, in our eyes, it is not a Bowdoin experience.”

Overall, Toledo said that Amherst’s fall is going well. He noted that some students have left campus because of the rules that must be followed, but the majority of students have stayed. 

However, Toledo said he wished the school had stricter consequences for students who break the rules regarding masks and social distancing. 

Neville said she would like more information from the BC administration as it relates to how policies this fall are being enforced. 

“I would expect the administration in some way to be like, ‘We are sending people home, here is proof, don’t do this,’ but they really have not,” Neville said. “I think they’re just being very quiet in general.”

Further, many students are worried about a testing program that they see as inadequate, and those concerns have not been addressed. However, Neville said BC has done better than she expected at controlling the virus and keeping students on campus. 

“I definitely anticipated that we would be sent home by now, to be honest. And it was a little scary when we had like a hundred positive cases in a week. But it seems like it’s getting better,” Neville said. 

At Tufts, Ian Wong, the director of Health Promotion and Prevention, has been impressed by students so far. After being tasked with heading a program that hires students to walk around campus and remind other students to wear masks properly and follow social distancing guidelines, Wong has seen the culture around wearing masks that Tufts has cultivated. 

“I have no problem walking around, again following all the rules and everything else,” Wong said.

Wong said he is proud of Tufts students and thinks that the culture has created a safe environment. 

“I was expecting Tufts students would be pretty good about [wearing masks] because we are a community, we watch out for each other,” Wong said. “The students are doing very well. I didn’t expect anything less from our community.”