Opinions, Column

Boston College’s Response To COVID-19 Was Irresponsible And Negligent

When I learned Boston College had made the decision to return for the fall semester in person, while the College of the Holy Cross—where my little sister, Lizzie, is a freshman—decided to go virtual, I felt two emotions. The first was gratitude that I could return to Boston to spend my last two semesters in person with my friends, and the second was empathy for my sister and the reality that she wouldn’t have a traditional freshman year.

I caught up with my sister a couple weeks into this semester to check in on her, and during the course of our conversation I inquired about Holy Cross’ COVID-19 policies. Lizzie mentioned that, now in-person, Holy Cross was testing its students for COVID-19 twice a week—a policy that might seem standard but which brought back memories of the blowback BC faced from students in the fall for inadequate testing.

Back around the time BC was facing substantial criticism over the outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus in September, I remember going weeks at a time without being called in for testing and going without recourse to voluntarily receive a COVID-19 test on campus. That same month, a friend of mine who came into contact with someone who later tested positive had to borrow my car to drive to get tested off campus after being refused a test at BC because the contact was more than 48 hours before symptoms began.

To be fair, BC has amended its testing policies since the beginning of the fall semester to test students at a more consistent rate, but many students still are only tested once per week. The COVID-19 situation at Holy Cross is nonetheless troubling, with a positivity rate of .27 percent this semester—lower than BC’s .41 percent, even as Holy Cross tests its students more often than BC.

But there were still myriad issues with BC’s handling of COVID-19 last semester, from the testing program, to outbreaks among students, to the administration’s hand-washing of responsibility. Multiple studies have shown that college reopenings have preceded notable increases in infections in their surrounding communities, and with these increases come more tragic deaths. A total of 214 people have died from COVID-19 in Newton, which is 1.24 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts. This rate is proportional to the rest of Massachusetts, as Newton’s total population is 1.29 percent of the population of Massachusetts.

BC had a responsibility to its students and the surrounding community to do everything it could to mitigate cases on campus. If the only way to do so was to remain online, I would be devastated for the loss of my senior year, but that doesn’t even approach the devastation of losing a loved one to COVID-19.

This is why I get such a bad taste in my mouth when I read comments on Heights articles lashing out against any criticism of BC’s response, or when I read an opinion from The Heights Editorial Board lauding the completion of the fall semester as “a testament to University’s planning, leadership.”

No, simply managing to ride out the semester in person does not qualify as a “successful fall semester.” Not sending students home and minimally adapting policies based on criticism is a remarkably low bar. 

Massachusetts data from Dec. 22, at the end of BC’s fall semester, shows that 8 percent of cases in Massachusetts higher education came from BC. In comparison, 8.87 percent of the Commonwealth’s cases came from UMass Amherst and 10.9 percent of cases came from Northeastern University, both of which have significantly more students than BC.

When 73 BC undergraduates tested positive in the second week of the fall semester, BC faced a torrent of criticism from students, local officials, and the media. Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 13—amid the spike—BC reported 99 cases on campus and yet made no acknowledgement to students about the case spike. BC did not acknowledge the spike in cases until the associate vice president of student affairs sent an email to students on Sept. 11 reminding them to social distance during the outbreak, which she said was “largely attributable to student interactions within six feet of one another without face coverings.” 

Not once has the University accepted any blame for the outbreaks. The administration did, however, have no issue blaming students or local and national infection trends—alternatives it seemed to pick depending on which seemed more plausible at the time.

Contrast this with Holy Cross’ response this semester when it received more than 40 positive tests among undergraduates in early April: It amended its policies based on its campus alert level guidelines (which BC does not have) until cases fell again, rather than blaming students for a lapse in compliance. Even this bare-minimum level of responsibility is antithetical to BC. Even as cases this semester rose past the level that sparked widespread concern and policy changes in the fall—with a total of 95 cases the week of Feb. 8 to Feb. 14 and 85 cases the week of Feb. 15 to Feb. 21—BC has done practically nothing in response.

Months later, BC still hasn’t fully gotten its act together. Cases remain high this semester—with a community positivity rate of .41 percent—which research shows reverberates around the local community. Students are permitted to go out to eat off campus, which many take as an invitation to gather at local bars, and the dining halls consistently feature mid-sized groups of students without wearing masks even when not eating. I love BC and am immensely grateful for an in-person senior year, but BC owed me, my classmates, and the community more than its profoundly negligent response.

Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor

April 25, 2021