Revise COVID-19 testing policies for student safety

Isabelle Costello , Associate Editor

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the August 25 flipbook.

At the start of August, Austin’s COVID-19 risk guidance was raised to Stage 5, the most severe level possible. In response to rising cases in Austin, University Health Services released an email to all students stating that they must get tested for COVID-19 before returning to Austin. 

For students not currently residing in Austin, the COVID-19 test must be taken within three days prior to their arrival in Austin. For those who are already in Austin but not yet living in their housing for the semester, the test must take place three days prior to moving into the residence, and if the student is already in their housing, the test must be done within three days of the first day of school. 

While clearing students before they rejoin the Austin community is the correct goal, UHS requires no proof of when students are returning to Austin, nor are they required to remain in the city between the time they move in and the first day of classes. Because of this, UHS should revise its COVID-19 pre-arrival testing policy to require all students to test within 72 hours of the first day of classes, rather than move in.

Many leases, especially in off-campus apartments and residence halls, begin a few weeks before classes start. This leaves a window of time for students to travel off campus, increasing the risk that they return to Austin exposed. 

Radio-television-film sophomore Tessa Kenworthy moved into her West Campus apartment last Wednesday. She completed her COVID-19 test the day before moving and is now traveling with a group of friends in San Francisco.

“My friends and I are here for five days, and while we are all vaccinated and masking up, this is a huge city where we could definitely be exposed,” Kenworthy said. “Our activities are outdoor, but we do plan on exploring the city, where we could be easily exposed.”

Even with students taking accountability for their own safety through vaccinations and mask wearing, exposure to COVID-19 is still possible, especially when leaving the Austin community and reentering before the start of school. 

“I don’t doubt a lot of people are traveling right now, or at least still going out within Austin,” Kenworthy said. “Honestly, I think the test being required when we move in is smart, and then an additional test for the first week of class would be the smartest.” 

Dr. Amy Young, chief clinical officer for UT Health Austin and vice dean of professional practice at Dell Medical School, explained the decision-making behind UHS’ policy.

“Testing within 72 hours prior to moving in is intended to detect cases of COVID-19 before they are introduced to the university community, mitigating further spread on campus,” Young said in an email. “For students who are already in Austin and part of the community, testing prior to the first day of classes serves a similar purpose of detecting cases early and preventing spread to others on campus.”

UHS’ goal to prevent cases in this way is logically sound, but doing so in a timeframe that allows for students to leave the community and return potentially exposed leaves everyone not only at risk, but with a false sense of security. 

Students should be required by UHS to get tested for COVID-19 before the first day of classes, rather than before they move in. Students deserve peace of mind that their community is getting tested before in-person classes resume. They shouldn’t, however, have to worry about whether those tests are timely enough to ensure their safety. 

Costello is a human development and family sciences sophomore from Boerne, Texas.