Opinion: Reopening for In-Person Classes was a Good Decision. Reopening for In-Person Classes Without an Effective Testing and Tracing Apparatus Was Not.

Author: Michael Dugan


When Fr. Jenkins announced in May the university’s plan to reopen for classes for the Fall Semester 2020, I was happy. Notre Dame, one of the nation’s top universities, was one of the first schools to come out in favor of reopening, shortly after some major state systems had begun to announce that they would go online in the fall. My peers had reached a nearly unanimous agreement that online learning was subpar, and we were happy to return to class. I looked forward to once again being able to be with my friends, rather than just seeing their faces on a phone screen. Planning for this semester would be a formidable challenge, but I believed Notre Dame would pull this off.

Over the summer, I became more hopeful. Cornell University publicly released a fifty-four page report containing mathematical modeling for the spread of COVID-19 throughout Cornell’s fall semester. The results from the report lay out a clear, science-based strategy to keep students, faculty, and staff safe throughout an in-person semester. Require the pre-departure and on-arrival testing of returning students; ensure that every student receives a COVID-19 test every five-to-seven days while they are at school; establish a robust contact tracing and testing protocol; and mandate that students self-report symptoms to the university every day.

Certainly, I thought, Notre Dame could make this work. After all, Notre Dame’s summertime communications indicated that the university was making similar plans to those of Cornell. Students would be required to submit to pre-matriculation testing, the university indicated that it planned to engage in surveillance testing, the COVID Response Unit was made responsible for contact tracing and online daily health checks became required of all students, faculty and full-time staff. Specific details of the testing and tracing protocols that would be in place once we moved back to campus were hard to come by, but I had faith in Notre Dame.

When I returned to campus, it quickly became clear that my faith was misplaced. After irresponsible students partied off-campus en masse, and a COVID-19 outbreak was underway, Notre Dame flubbed its initial response. Contact tracing and testing efforts were undermined by extreme barriers some students faced in receiving a COVID-19 test. In one such case, as WSBT reports, a student was denied a test despite having spent hours with his girlfriend, who later developed a fever and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, surveillance testing, which could have mitigated the size of the outbreak, was not performed on the general student body for more than two weeks after the outbreak began. This woeful combination of actions and protocols only helped to spread COVID-19 in our community.

While reopening campus may have been the right decision, reopening campus without a robust and effective tracing and testing apparatus was certainly not. And while many have already borne the health and safety consequences of these decisions, only time will tell if we can save our sinking ship.