By The Gettysburgian Editorial Board
When you test positive for COVID-19, you generally avoid traveling 300 miles and switching households. However, that is Gettysburg’s current plan in place for COVID-positive students.
After much anticipation, the College emailed students the COVID mitigation strategy for the spring semester. Many of the procedures seem in line with what similar colleges have been releasing. The first week of classes will be online. Students will be required to test pre- and post-arrival, then will be tested weekly for the first four weeks. Students will also be required to have the booster, and the campus will have booster clinics for those who need them. These procedures seem like they will be effective in monitoring cases and outbreaks and will help the prevention of spread. This was the information and details students needed to know to feel more comfortable returning to campus during this immense spike in cases due to the Omicron variant.
However, the quarantine and isolation strategy stood out among the otherwise logical plans.
The College explained that due to an expected increase in cases among students once they return to campus and considering the College has limited quarantine space and resources, students who live within 300 miles of the campus would need to return home to quarantine if they test positive for COVID or are a close contact.
Logistically, this is a nightmare for students. A large population of students does not have cars on campus, including all first-year students. Does the College then expect families to travel to Gettysburg and travel with their COVID-positive student back home in an enclosed space for up to five hours? Will those families be able to leave their work and obligations instantaneously when their student tests positive? Or potentially worse, expect COVID-positive students to take public transportation? For students who have cars on campus, will the College provide reimbursements for the gas expenses to travel back and forth up to 300 miles in five days?
Additionally, sending COVID-positive students home means exposing their families to COVID. Though sending a student with COVID to their family may reduce the spread on campus, it still exposes more people to COVID than would otherwise be exposed. However, Gettysburg has not previously seemed concerned about the health of our families. In the fall of 2020, the College sent the vast majority of students home in the fall of 2020 during the largest COVID outbreak on campus. This brought families to the campus COVID hotspot to help with move-out and sent exposed students home to their families. These policies can feel to students as though Gettysburg is more concerned with the public appearance of a campus outbreak than actually preventing further spread of COVID to students’ families and home communities.
Though ideally, it would be best to have entirely separate places for students with COVID to isolate, even quarantining with roommates who have already been exposed would be safer from a public health perspective than traveling and exposing a new household. CDC guidelines state directly, “Do not travel during your 5-day quarantine period.” Many students live with older or immunocompromised family members that they would not want to put at risk by returning home with COVID. We hope that it is possible for students to request an exemption according to their families’ needs, but this option was not mentioned in their initial email to students.
The 300-mile radius policy seems so extreme that it could only be a solution if the College believes that it is running out of resources and options. Given that cases are skyrocketed and that Omicron is incredibly contagious, even for those vaccinated, it is probable that many students will test positive for COVID upon returning to campus and during those first four weeks. The school stated in the email that they anticipate this spike in cases, which is likely why they are concerned with providing resources to accommodate the many students who will test positive. It may also be emblematic of the financial strain that the College faces after four semesters of COVID changes and procedures, causing them to rely on students and their families to accommodate isolation without the College’s support.
It was reassuring to finally receive the COVID mitigation strategy that we have been wondering about, but the isolation strategy raises concerns about Gettysburg’s ability to handle the expected spike in cases on campus. Is it one poorly planned procedure, or is it a sign of more oversights and an inability to support students in this ongoing crisis? We have to hope that this semester will be safe and healthy for the Gettysburg community, and we also have to hope that the College is relying on more than just hope.