As Cases Spike, COVID Concerns Grip PC Community Putting Off-Campus Students on Lockdown, PC Aims to Stop the Spread

by Kyle Burgess on September 17, 2020


by Andrea Traietti ’21

Editor in Chief

Slowly but steadily, unease crept across campus early on Tuesday as rumors began to spread that a number of off-campus students had received positive COVID-19 test results. Over the course of the day, concern grew into near-panic for many as students began to communicate with one another about what they had heard and as more details emerged.

Late Tuesday night, around 10 p.m., students received their first concrete piece of information of the day, though maybe not what they were hoping for: effective immediately, students living off-campus were to quarantine for an unspecified period of time.

The late-night email from Dean Steven Sears on Sept. 15, effectively putting off-campus students in lockdown, sent shockwaves across campus.

Early last week, the College saw its first real increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases with three positive test results on Monday, Sept. 7. Five more positive results followed the next day, putting students and faculty on edge, as it was unknown whether or not this was evidence of a growing trend, soon to explode into an outbreak or merely a blip of isolated cases.

When cases dropped down to two on Sept. 9 and then stayed at zero for the next several days, it seemed as though PC had escaped what many thought had the potential to become an outbreak. But within 24 hours on Tuesday, it was clear that any sense of security offered by the low number of cases on the dashboard was not going to last.

News of positive cases prompted many off-campus students to seek rapid testing options at sites off campus, separate from the on-campus testing facility that PC has been using for its surveillance testing of students and faculty.

By the afternoon, news that some of these off-campus tests had returned positive added to the already heightened sense of anxiety on campus. In an afternoon meeting with several students on different club executive boards, Dean Sears indicated that he had received reports of confirmed cases both on and off campus, and that at least one of those cases had been reported to the College from an off-campus testing location.

With no official statement made to the entire PC community, and no updates to the testing data, students were left wondering what course of action the College might take—and if they themselves might have been exposed. That night, however, these questions were answered with the email sent by Sears mandating the immediate isolation and quarantine of all off-campus students.

The first line of Dean Sears’ email referenced the off-campus tests: “We have received reports of students who have tested for COVID-19 tests on their own, at off-campus facilities. He continued, “Some of these results have been reported to the College by the Rhode Island Department of Health; others have been self-reported.” Sears asked students who had received a positive test from any off-campus location to contact Kathy Kelleher in the Student Health Center.

The email contained another directive for mandatory testing the following morning as well. The only instruction given by Sears was that all off-campus students were to report to the Peterson Recreation Center between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sept. 16. This caused widespread panic amongst off-campus students, who all rushed to the testing site that morning, resulting in extremely long waiting times beginning as early as 7:30 a.m. and lines that wrapped all the way around the parking garage below Lennon Field.

Many seniors expressed anger at the lack of organization of the mass testing process. Waiting in an enclosed parking garage for an hour or longer with other students who could potentially test positive was a widespread concern among students.

“I definitely felt anxious waiting in line,” said Katrina Aucello ’21, who visited the testing site around 10:30 Wednesday morning. “The people behind us were close to us, which made me feel uncomfortable given that it felt like anyone off-campus could be positive right now and not even know it.”

Students expressed that there seemed to be many other ways the College could have organized the testing to make the procedure safer not only for the students waiting in the garage, but also for those working in the testing site. Suggestions included creating time slots based on alphabetical order or by the street on which students reside. “If the College had come up with a more efficient and organized plan for testing today, I think that the long lines could have been avoided, which would have made everyone feel safer,” said Aucello.

One member of the senior class said, “Although I recognize the school’s efforts in trying to prevent further spreading of the virus, this was the completely wrong way to go about this. Having all the students collect in one area over a five-hour period of time (not to mention with non-thorough cleaning and not enough enforcement of social distancing) is just another opportunity for exposure to the virus.”

In response to the long lines today, Dean Sears said, “The long lines were just a snapshot in time of everyone showing up at one time for testing. My hope is that we have all negative results from our testing today.” While these are optimistic hopes, one student reported that another student standing behind them in line received a call notifying them of a positive test result while in the garage. It is incidents like this that have made students feel uneasy about how testing went yesterday, and where events and procedures might go in the coming days.

Many students have begun to express concerns about the College’s level of communication and transparency with students, given that the only positive cases on the dashboard since the start of the week were five on Monday, Sept. 14. “I would like to see an increased level of communication and transparency from the school going forward,” said Aucello, “especially because students are hearing a lot of conflicting information from their friends, peers, and professors at any given moment.”

Another concern amongst students is with the lack of discipline from some students who have been ordered to quarantine. Dean Sears addressed these concerns in another email to all off-campus students on Wednesday night. Explaining that he had received photos of parties off campus, complaints about roommates not following COVID-19 regulations, and reports that off-campus students did not return immediately to their homes as advised following testing today, Sears said, “I appreciate how difficult this is and I really do sympathize, but let’s be the community we are meant to be, make good decisions, and keep our Friar family together. This is not a request, or a plea. It is an expectation and our community deserves it.”

Dean Sears concluded his email with a reminder about quarantine protocol, and offered students support, saying, “The College will continue to provide support as you navigate the coming days, and we are here for you if there are things you need. We are at a critical juncture, and it will take all of us to get through it successfully, working together.”

As the College continues to test more students, contact trace, and track down the results of any tests performed off-campus, students, especially those off-campus, await the results from Wednesday’s mass testing, news about when quarantine will end, and any updates to the College’s coronavirus data dashboard. Now, the fate of the semester remains as unclear as ever, and the coming days will prove a test of students’ willpower, the administration’s ability to respond to an outbreak, and the resilience of the PC community as a whole.