In the past year, IE has adapted quite well to the COVID-19 pandemic. Liquid learning has allowed students to stay home abroad, lowering transmission, and has allowed students in Segovia and Madrid more freedom to stay home when feeling sick from COVID or other ailments. The university testing centers offer free and accessible rapid tests.
However, this largely WHO guidelines-based approach runs amuck when students return to campus. From spring break, winter break, and summer break, the university required one antigen test, regardless of the last flight or border crossing. This policy proves ineffective in mitigating the risk for students traveling back to campus and can provide a false sense of security for newly-arrived students.
According to the Center for Disease Control, those in high risk situations (for example, a plane ride, an airport, a train, etc) should take a test 5-7 days after exposure. This provides time for the virus to multiply enough to show up on an antigen or PCR test. Quoting Norton Healthcare, a healthcare provider in the US,
“A negative PCR test does not mean that an individual is free of infection, but rather only that, at that particular moment, the sample did not contain viral levels at a high enough concentration to be measured as a positive.”
The university’s returning to campus testing regime does not follow this advice. They only require one test before returning to campus, regardless of activities or travel in the past 5 days. They began offering testing on the 4th of April, right when students began to return to Segovia. They did not require students to wait the appropriate amount of days after high risk activity to take these tests.
We’ve seen the fallout from these testing policies, especially when it comes to the false sense of security it gives. When coming back from summer, students arrived and got covid tests almost immediately. With this false sense of security, students gathered together, and an outbreak ripped through the Segovia campus.
Similar events happened this winter, although less severe. Testing requirements for plane rides filtered out some risk for flying internationally (with Spain replacing quarantines for international travelers with a covid test requirement). However, some people still fell through the cracks. Again, some flew in, tested negative, and showed symptoms a week or so after arriving.
To mitigate this risk, IE could implement a dual testing scheme, testing at the arrival and then the week after arrival. However, utilizing this scheme for the whole campus could have unnecessary costs, as not everyone travels and some don’t take high risk methods of travel (a spacious train, for example). Thus, the University health service could also include a Health Passport section for travel plans, requiring every student to detail their plans for travelling by high risk means (is social distancing and masks practiced in such travel methods?).
This plan certainly has flaws. The daily follow-ups rely on students’ honesty, and putting up a barrier in front of returning to campus could lead students to lie on their daily follow-ups. Arguably, high risk travel should fall under a “high risk scenario” on the daily follow-up, but its lack of specificity means that students may not count it as high risk. Students may feel overly-observed and violated with the university asking for such detailed information. Additionally, requiring 5 days before getting tested to return to campus could lead students to push off coming back, extending their breaks and leading to a higher risk of contagion. However, the risks of having an outbreak unchecked far outweigh these concerns.
By now, spring break has ended and the testing regime is already in place. However, when students return from summer break in September and August, the university should take these concerns into mind when designing their testing strategy. Doing so would help students and professors feel much more comfortable both inside and outside the classroom.