During the fall semester, Bowdoin only housed a third of its student body. Yet, many students decided to live in Brunswick and its surrounding towns in an effort to maintain their connection with friends and the greater Bowdoin community. Thankfully, Bowdoin partnered with Mid Coast Hospital to offer a COVID-19 testing program for off-campus students who were living in Brunswick at the time. These students received PCR tests once a week, and their results were available within 72 hours.
The College’s off-campus testing program was an important means of keeping the greater Brunswick community safe. It granted off-campus students access to reliable and free testing, which gave students, parents and the Brunswick community peace of mind. This way, it was much less likely that a Bowdoin student could unknowingly spread COVID-19 by conducting essential business in town while carrying an asymptomatic but contagious case of COVID-19. Testing off-campus students once a week helped keep Brunswick safe.
Now, the College has suspended its off-campus testing program without giving an explicit reason why. As reported in the Orient, the administration explained that this cancelation was not made for financial reasons, yet they did not offer a concrete reason for its discontinuation. This decision leaves hundreds of students without access to reliable testing, thereby increasing COVID-19 risk in Brunswick.
This was a dangerous decision by the College. Consistent and accessible testing is an important measure in identifying COVID-19 cases early and stopping their spread. This is especially important now that newer, more contagious variants of COVID-19 are spreading in the United States, making essential activities riskier than they were in the past. It is more likely today than it was in the fall that a student could be exposed to COVID-19 and remain unaware that there was any need for them to self-quarantine. Therefore, leaving off-campus students without consistent testing increases the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak in Brunswick, a town where the average age of residents is 43.
Of course, there can still be an outbreak in our community when people are being tested regularly, and preventative behaviors such as masking and social distancing are essential to preventing cases. However, recognizing that COVID-19 can be contracted even when people are observing CDC guidelines, especially if they have to spend a significant amount of time in public spaces to conduct essential business, maintain needed employment and attend medical appointments that do not allow for distancing, it is important that cases are caught early enough to prevent significant spread in such circumstances.
And even if students are placing themselves at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 through engaging in unsafe behavior, this is no reason to endanger the Brunswick community by making it more difficult for these students to regularly receive PCR tests. It is important to encourage one another to take the necessary precautions to keep the community safe, but it is equally important to recognize that compliance will not be perfect. The College must take the necessary steps to ensure that one person’s decisions do not become someone else’s burden to bear.
In an Orient report published in September outlining the fall off-campus testing plan, Associate Dean of Students and COVID-19 Coordinator Mike Ranen wrote in an email to the Orient, “We came to the decision [to offer testing] by acknowledging our relationship to the Brunswick community and our desire to help keep the entire [town of] Brunswick safe.”
With COVID-19 still a threat, this commitment to the Brunswick community should be unwavering. Ultimately, the College has an ongoing responsibility not only to its students but also to the surrounding community to lessen the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission, which involves mitigating the impacts of honest mistakes and unlucky occurrences as well as of irresponsible decisions. Just as the College anticipates all of these possibilities with the care it has taken in setting up on-campus testing and protocols, it also needs to reinstate its commendable prior commitment to making sure off-campus students who are not in residence are able to regularly get tested for COVID-19.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Editorial Board, which is comprised of Sam Angevine, Julia Jennings, Katie King, Kate Lusignan, Nina McKay and Ayub Tahlil.