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The testing dilemma: Students faced with uncomfortable choices amidst COVID-19 peak

On Jan. 18, 2022, students returned to inperson classes at the University of Maine. As the novel Omicron variant spread across campus, COVID19 cases soared. With 486 positive UMS tests in the last 14 days, concerns are growing surrounding the resources available to students and whether the measures taken by the school are in their best interest. 

In October of 2021, The Maine Campus published a piece titled COVID’s still here. Why isn’t our strategy? addressing students’ concerns over the weakening response from the university and uncertainty about the future. It seems these measures have become further compromised, and a system that incentivises negligence has taken over. 

There are a staggering ten times more active COVID19 cases known in the UMS system now than when the Maine Campus reported in October. Yet many of the fundamental resources once in place have been revoked. Weekly testing for boosted students will not be required beginning Feb. 1, and even if students do test positive on their own there’s little incentive to self-report. 

Professors are not expected to provide virtual alternatives for the five plus days students are out recovering, a policy which pressures students to attend classes even when sick. Aside from academic stress, financial and logistical issues additionally corner students who cannot afford to travel home for quarantine. 

“Residential students who test positive for COVID-19 and/or are close contacts of known positives should plan to isolate/quarantine off campus at home or elsewhere,” the University of Maine states on their website. Thus, on top of academic responsibilities, students are also faced with the task of arranging an external quarantine location. 

Five nights at a nearby hotel plus travel expenses could easily set a student back hundreds of dollars, and traveling home simply isn’t an option for many students who come from other states or countries. There are extremely limited, on-campus quarantine rooms, but contacting the school may prove difficult as the COVID-19 response line is only available during weekday hours.

With the described academic, financial and logistical headaches encompassing a positive test result, students are realizing the easiest thing to do is to not get tested. This seems almost convenient for the university as the narrative has been shifting to place full responsibility on the student. 

Individuals who test positive are asked to open the lines of communication with those you know are your close contacts — your roommate or classmate, your coworker, etc. Also notify the faculty member of your in-person class or your workplace supervisor,” the university reports on their website. With an ambiguous contact tracing system, students are left with the full responsibility of notifying friends, classmates, professors and peers. The anxiety surrounding reporting further encourages students to simply not test and, worse, not report if they do test positive. 

So what do students do? They ignore their symptoms and go to class—jeopardizing themselves and the overwhelmed the healthcare system in Maine. Omicron spreads significantly faster than the delta and original SARS-CoV-2 variants, and yet we’re becoming more reckless than ever, bordering on carelessness. 

UMaine has proven once before that they’re capable of incredible testing efficiency, accessible remote learning and on-campus quarantine housing, yet they’re actively choosing not to reinstate these resources to a capacity that would incentivize responsible testing and reporting. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on us all, but we simply cannot afford to adopt negligence in hopes that the problem will simply disappear. UMaine should require all professors to provide remote learning options for students to encourage staying home in order to minimize the virus spread. As well, all students living on campus should have equal access to free quarantine housing. These steps would help encourage students to get tested and prioritize their health. This will benefit everyone long term as providing resources to help students who get sick in turn promotes accountability and responsibility.

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