Last semester, the College offered free COVID-19 testing to all students living off campus in the Brunswick area. The program was established in partnership with Mid Coast Hospital to help keep Brunswick safe, recognizing that off-campus students would interact with the greater community at grocery stores and other essential businesses. This spring, however, the off-campus testing program has been discontinued, leaving dozens of students living in Brunswick without campus privileges questioning why.
“They never gave us a specific reason for why they were stopping it,” said Brynne Wicklund ’21, who is living in a house with a group of seniors in Brunswick, in a phone interview with the Orient.. “We thought [the program] was all about protecting the community, and we were totally on board with [that]. But [Bowdoin] never really communicated a reason why [the program] was going to end. It just didn’t really make sense.
Last semester Cecilia de Havenon ’21 also took part in the off-campus testing program, which allowed her house to create a consistent testing cycle throughout the fall.
“My roommates and I spread it out so that one of us would hand in our tests on Mondays, one of us would hand in our tests on Wednesdays and then one of us would hand in another test on Fridays, so it was kind of covered throughout the week,” de Havenon said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Through a partnership between the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the State of Maine is providing a “swab and send”PCR test at Mid Coast-Parkview Hospital free of charge without an order from a provider or a rapid antigen test at Walgreens in Topsham. However, the program’s cancellation this semester has made navigating testing significantly more challenging. Like Wicklund, de Havenon and her roommates have had to find other, less efficient options for testing.
“We’ve been trying to do rapid testing at Walgreens, which is free … it’s just through the drive-thru pharmacy,” de Havenon said. “But, as we know … rapid testing isn’t as accurate as PCR testing, so it’s not as easy as it would be at Bowdoin … and sometimes there aren’t spots.”
On its “Resources for Students Studying Remotely” webpage, the College recognizes the challenges students living off-campus in the Brunswick area might face trying to find access to regular testing.
“We are using on-campus testing as a precautionary measure this semester (i.e., we are using it for pre-symptomatic screening). This is likely not a logistically feasible approach if you are living off campus,” reads the webpage. “Testing on its own is not a panacea, and you may not be able to get tested in a regular, consistent manner given local availability of tests.”
“It is important to note that testing does not keep people safe,” Director of Residential and Student Life and COVID-19 Resource Coordinator Mike Ranen wrote in an email to the Orient. “Testing on campus is used to monitor and mitigate outbreaks, but it is people’s actions that keep our community safe, including facial coverings, good hygiene and social distancing. Our students, both on- and off-campus, appear to understand this and are following public health guidelines to keep our communities safe.”
Ranen wrote that the choice to discontinue the program for this spring “was not a financial decision.” Ranen also reported that in the fall, less than 50 percent of the students who were eligible to participate in the off-campus testing program took advantage of the resource, and not all of those students used the program on a regular basis. He clarified that while the program was run in cooperation with Mid Coast Hospital and tests were processed by NorDx Laboratories in Scarborough, the decision to cancel the program for the spring was made by “a number of officials at the College.”
However, this decision has left many students without good options for maintaining a consistent testing schedule. Thomas Martin ’21, who is living with six other seniors in the Brunswick area, is worried that this change will make it more difficult for him to keep the community safe.
“Getting tested was a big reason that we felt like it was okay to be in Brunswick at all, rather than just staying at home,” Martin said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “We haven’t been able to get consistent testing … just because when you go once a week, it starts to really add up in terms of the cost.”
The College announced its decision to cancel the off-campus testing program for the spring before students who had participated in the fall program had to decide whether to request on-campus privileges for the spring semester. Because of the timing of the announcement, some students felt pressured to request campus privileges because it would be the only way to ensure they would have access to regular testing.
“I remember knowing that [the College] wasn’t going to offer [free COVID-19 testing] to us before making that decision [to request on-campus privileges or not],” Wicklund said. “It kind of seemed like they were trying to hold it over us, as in ‘come on campus so you can get tested, because otherwise we’re not doing that for you next semester.’ That’s the way I kind of interpreted it.”
However, for some students, the in-residence option wasn’t even possible. Some needed to secure part-time jobs in Brunswick this semester due to the severely reduced student employment options at the College.
“I actually wanted to go on campus, but I was in the minority of my roommates who wanted to because they have to work jobs off campus,” Martin said. “Even though Bowdoin has waived the student contribution for students on aid this semester, we still have to earn money in this time. So for the people who have to work in my house, going in-residence wasn’t an option.”
De Havenon, who has a job off campus, said that a lack of access to regular testing this spring has made her more nervous about going into work and potentially transmitting the virus than she had felt in the fall.
“I work at a grocery store in town, and we do have a lot of older customers, and it was just nice every week to know that I wasn’t really asymptomatic and positive and giving it to coworkers or giving it to people that are visiting the grocery store,” de Havenon said.