Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: BU’s latest COVID-19 policy tries to create a new normal, but ignores existing fears

As the last few weeks of winter break wrapped up, students anticipated an inevitable announcement that Boston University, like many other universities, would have courses go remote for the first few weeks of the Spring semester. Instead, what arrived was a concise, neutral email from President Robert Brown stating, “Classes will be taught in-person.” 

Following this decision, BU announced a series of changes to its COVID-19 policy, including twice weekly unobserved testing for undergraduate students, a suspension of daily symptom screenings and a new rule that the University would not conduct contact tracing. 

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

These changes come during a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases caused in part by Omicron, the latest variant of the virus. On campus, the Omicron variant has caused a dramatic increase in positive test results with daily positive results topping 400 this month. This comes after daily positive cases stayed well below 200 for the entirety of the Fall semester. 

Despite this concerning increase, the University’s resolve to stay in-person remains strong. 

Amidst comparisons to other schools that have shut down, BU propagates its 98.1% vaccination rate for students as reason for its in-person policy. Yet, Omicron has proven remarkably transmissible — even in vaccinated populations — making the return to campus feel risky, and the possibility of a return to remote learning even more viable. 

Among the various confident emails and polished BU Today articles articulating new COVID-19 protocols, one pattern is obvious — now, more than ever, the onus is now on students to adhere to pandemic policy. 

Gone are the days of mandatory symptom surveys and trekking to 808 Gallery to swab your nose in front of a staff member. Students are now responsible for scheduling a symptomatic COVID-19 test themselves if they experience symptoms, contacting close contacts if they test positive and even quarantining in their own dorms if isolation housing fills up. 

On the one hand, the increased autonomy has allowed for more frequent testing. This means positive cases will be discovered sooner, and the University will have more data with which to track and manage the virus. On the other hand, BU’s hands-off approach feels almost like accepting defeat. After all, why set up infrastructure for professional contact tracing and adequate isolation space if the University will inevitably be overwhelmed by cases anyway? 

Having to trust fellow students, no matter how deeply they attest to having inserted their nasal swab, brings up another point of unease with BU’s new approach. By removing professional supervision from much of its COVID-19 prevention tools, the University has made it easy for students to fail to notify their close contacts of a positive test result. 

Of course, there is no reason to believe most students will not be responsible, but between academic stress and social pressure to continue attending class, it is not unreasonable that shortcuts will become more and more attractive.

On a positive note, students advocated enough for recorded lectures last semester that the University finally allowed professors to record their lessons. However, providing this remote option is not required, prompting fears that professors may simply opt out of recording lectures for the sake of convenience. In a potential situation where large numbers of students are in isolation — a scenario that BU’s new protocols seem to forewarn — the continued lack of guarantee of professors providing a remote option creates even more concern. 

Balancing public health safety with academics, finances and the mental health of its students is no easy task for the University. Now, more than ever, it seems BU has chosen to doggedly pursue in-person learning, even if that means creating new policies that inspire more unease than confidence. 

Is the solution a return to remote learning? Somehow, after two years of Zoom meetings and canceled flights, the prospect of receiving a university-supplied KN95 mask is more appealing than studying calculus from your childhood bedroom. 

Perhaps it would be better if the University simply acknowledged that its determined push for in-person learning has raised concerns, as well as the uneasiness that students still have surrounding Omicron. 

Whether through providing a hybrid learning option or continuing the professional safety nets it had in place for a little longer, BU would do well to dispel the impression its current COVID-19 policy gives —  that the fear of losing revenue by not committing to in-person learning overrides its students’ fears concerning public health.

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