We should test like we don’t have luck on our side

By Editorial Board

Sarah Fagan

Nothing about this year has been lucky, and yet, as we recall the Covid-19 scare in the final days of the term, it seems that we got through the fall by a stroke of luck. As evidenced by the three positive Covid-19 cases on the heels of the semester, our ability to circumvent an outbreak this semester relied heavily on a low prevalence of Covid-19 in Addison County. Now, as cases are on the rise — both nationally and in-state — the upcoming spring semester necessitates a more rigorous testing program to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of the community. We ask that the college implement weekly testing for all students, faculty and staff, no-questions-asked testing upon request and mandatory exit testing in this coming spring semester. 

Unlike our NESCAC peers — almost all of whom tested their entire student body twice per week — Middlebury’s targeted-dynamic testing reached less than a third of on-campus students each week. Some went over a month without being tested, and after new cases were detected during the last days of on-campus classes, such sparse testing felt alarmingly insufficient. Because the college had not tested students regularly, those living on campus had no way of knowing when and where the virus had spread — and whether it had reached more people than the smattering of tests had picked up. 

The worst case scenario played out in another small Vermont college just an hour away. St. Michael’s College employed a similar testing model that selected roughly a third of the student population each week — a strikingly similar plan to Middlebury’s. Over the course of late October to early November, dozens of students tested positive, eventually leading to a shift to remote learning on Nov. 1. Our own infrequent fall testing system could have resulted in similar consequences.

In addition to more frequent surveillance testing, students should be able to get a Covid-19 test upon request, no questions asked. Increased testing availability supports not just the physical health of our community but our mental health as well. Negative Covid-19 tests provide the peace of mind that students need to feel safe after waking up with a sore throat or being a contact-of-a-contact-of-a-contact of a case — situations in which the college denied students testing this fall. Under the current plan, a student in a situation like this is left to worry and take things into their own hands. Many even enacted safety measures like a self-imposed room quarantine to feel safe and responsible while they waited for their contact’s results or to get tested again. 

No-questions-asked testing would also encourage testing among students who have committed an infraction of the college Covid-19 policy but will not report themselves for fear of reprimand or dismissal. Whatever the case may be, it is ultimately to the benefit of both the individual and to everyone else in the community if each student has regular access to testing rather than waiting — possibly for weeks — until they are selected for targeted-dynamic testing.

Gearing up to travel home to communities around the world, many students felt uneasy about potentially bringing Covid-19 home for the holidays — yet in the final weeks of the semester, student requests for pre-departure testing were consistently denied. Only when the virus spiked in the region during the final week did the college offer optional exit testing, which more than 1,500 students willingly participated in. Exit testing should have been on the table from the get-go, offering students, faculty and staff the peace of mind that they would not spread the virus when departing campus. Moreover, it should be a mandate in the spring, not just an option. Required exit testing is necessary for preventing further infection beyond campus, demonstrating a sense of responsibility and respect toward those living in our locality and beyond. 

We recognize that Covid-19 testing requires financial resources. But rather than looking at increased testing as an increased expense, we need to see it as an insurance policy. More frequent testing will help the campus avoid early evacuation, an event that would inevitably cost the college in room and board refunds, and potentially also cost staff their jobs. 

To support the possibility of a more “normal” and safe spring semester, and to fulfill our obligation to the communities we care about, we need a testing model that reflects these commitments through weekly surveillance and no-questions-asked testing, as well as mandatory departure testing.

This editorial represents the opinions of the Middlebury Campus’s editorial board.