Testing program is “a well oiled machine,” says head of admissions testing site

September 25, 2020

After rapidly transitioning to online learning last spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the big question for colleges and universities this summer was whether or not institutions would be able to reopen their campuses in the fall and what form this reopening would take. While some of Brandeis’ neighbors, such as Harvard University and University of Massachusetts- Boston, have elected to keep their campuses closed, Brandeis has committed to a hybrid model that allows some students to come back to campus and to hold a mix of in-person and online classes. Brandeis has implemented many social distancing rules to prevent community spread on campus, but the premise of bringing students back to campus and keeping them there depends on the university’s ability to frequently and quickly test students, faculty and staff. Now that students have been back on campus for over a month, The Brandeis Hoot spoke to university staff to see how Brandeis’ testing program is holding up.

Nicole D’Andrea, the equipment coordinator for Brandeis athletics and the head of the Shapiro Admissions Center testing site, characterized the university’s testing operations as “a well oiled machine.” D’Andrea said the system was capable of lasting through the semester and ensuring that students will be able to safely remain on campus until Thanksgiving, noting that fewer than one new case is detected on average every week. D’Andrea added that people had been on campus in some form or another since the end of July, and that the testing program has proven itself in that time. 

D’Andrea supervises 70 student workers whom she said “are fantastic.” She noted that there were long lines in the first few weeks after students returned to campus in mid-August, but said that after the last wave of student workers finished their training, the lines have substantially diminished and become more manageable. 

D’Andrea told The Hoot that students have also been excellent about getting tested, making the jobs of testing workers easier. She noted that some students have asked whether or not they can be tested more often than the two times they are mandated to be tested, but that that would be logistically impossible due to constraints on testing resources. She also noted that students should be careful about blowing their noses before swabbing their nostrils because the Broad Institute, which processes tests for Brandeis and other New England universities, will not process samples with solid residue on the swab.

As for the university’s partnership with the Broad Institute, D’Andrea also said that “everything has been very smooth” as far as she knows. She said that both the process of physically transporting the samples and the software involved in transmitting the results to the school and to students have been working well thus far. She added that the Broad Institute is responsible for keeping the university supplied with the physical supplies necessary for testing, such as swabs and sample tubes, and that there have been no issues with supply nor any reason to be concerned about future supply, though she added that she is not directly in charge of ensuring that the university is supplied with testing materials.

The Hoot also spoke with Josh Shuster ’23, one of the student employees at the admissions site, who agreed with D’Andrea. He described testing operations as “incredibly smooth and extremely organized,” something he credited to D’Andrea, whom he called “[an] amazing boss.” Shuster did note that some students had gotten upset when told to redo their tests due to solid residue on the swab, and that they did not seem to understand that these were invalid samples. He added that these students did not, in his experience, get directly upset at the testing workers. He said that making sure to blow their noses thoroughly was something students could do to make the process run more smoothly for everyone, along with setting up appointments rather than just walking in. 

Shuster said that he has the supplies that he needs to do his job well but did note that the university administration could make the process easier for the students by moving the testing center completely inside as the weather gets colder, commenting that “sitting outside for a 4 hour shift when its snowing would be not enjoyable [sic].”

According to The New York Times, Brandeis has had nine positive cases since the virus first emerged at the end of 2019, most of which occurred in the spring before students left campus. Nearby schools such as Tufts and Bentley have had 18 and two cases respectively, while across the 42 schools that The Times tracks in Massachusetts, there have been a total of 436 cases, largely concentrated in Boston and with no more than 90 cases at any one school.

Other schools across the country have had substantially higher case counts, including Notre Dame and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which had 682 and 1152 cases respectively and had to reclose their campuses earlier in the fall due to outbreaks on campus.

In part, Brandeis’ low case numbers can be attributed to the low numbers in Massachusetts and other New England states. However, should those numbers begin to rise, the university’s ability to quickly detect any cases on campus would determine whether or not students could continue in-person classes and interaction with peers.

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