Following recently announced changes to the University’s masking and testing policies, students who spoke to The Herald expressed concern and surprise.
Members of the Brown community have faced a variety of University policy changes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes are communicated through email, often with little warning or time for adjustment, students say.
In Oct. 25 and Oct. 28 emails to the Brown community, the University announced that testing would be optional for fully vaccinated undergraduate students, faculty and staff, but that unvaccinated employees and students would still be required to get tested twice per week, The Herald previously reported.
Indoor mask-wearing is now also optional for lecturers while speaking in class, performers during shows and anyone engaged in indoor athletic and recreation activities. Students will have to get tested twice in the week after returning from Thanksgiving break regardless of vaccination status.
A Nov. 4 email also announced that testing site hours would be reduced and that the University would begin piloting self-administered PCR COVID testing at the One Davol Square testing location, The Herald previously reported.
Student reaction to the changes has been mixed. In regards to the mandatory testing changes, Kevin Cox ’24 said he felt “both pleased and concerned” because he felt “like Brown has been handling COVID safety quite well in general” but also that “the testing was an essential benchmark for determining future changes in COVID policies.”
Sarah Tenyer MA’22 said she was “surprised to hear that Brown made this change, especially because it’s so close to our semester breaks (when) a lot of students travel.”
Referencing concerns over the changes being implemented so close to Thanksgiving break, Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy, told The Herald that “everything’s a balance … Requiring testing twice (in) the week after (students return) is a significant mitigation to that risk. I think we feel very comfortable with that.”
Carey said he understood that “people have concerns and people may make different choices,” but highlighted that “testing is optional and available to everybody … The overall public health conditions on campus are extraordinarily good and reflective of the high vaccination levels that Brown community members have attained.”
Ashley Cai ’25, said she was “pretty surprised and honestly uncomfortable with the decision.”
“Mandatory testing was the only way I felt safe on campus, and without it, I don’t have as much of a sense of that anymore,” she said.
After receiving the email, Cai said she feels “less safe if I think about it, but it honestly hasn’t changed my daily routine and actions that much. I stay masked in large groups, unmasked in small ones that I feel safe in and try to eat outside or away from other people when that’s not possible.” Cox said that he feels “pretty safe on campus” and that the announcement hasn’t made him “too concerned.”
“Brown is doing an okay job handling what they can in terms of access to testing and masking policies,” Tenyer said, “but it’s hard to realistically control everything.” She said she also feels safe “considering that masks are still required in classrooms” but is interested to “know if Brown plans to change that mask policy in the next few weeks.”
Students also gave mixed responses when asked about their future testing plans. Cai said she plans to maintain the frequency of her tests but “forgets about testing more now that it isn’t required.” Tenyer said she still gets tested once per week.
Cox, on the other hand, said he plans to decrease the number of tests he gets because “when observing the base rate of cases, it seems pretty unlikely that I would have COVID.” He added that he “did get tested after (Halloween weekend) ... because there was a lot more exposure than normal.”
Carey said that about a quarter of students are continuing to test now that it’s optional. Addressing student concerns, he said the University was aligning itself with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and emphasized that the University had no cases of severe illness and no hospitalizations over the last several months.
Tenyer thinks that “getting weekly tests and requiring masks is important just out of an abundance of caution, especially now that the weather is getting colder and more people are going to be inside for longer periods of time.”
Both Cai and Cox questioned whether the University’s testing policy change was financially motivated. Cai said that “testing is so expensive for the school,” while Cox said he knows that “financially, it makes much more sense to impose the restriction of wearing masks than to sponsor the testing.”
When asked about the financial motivations behind the University’s changes, Carey said that “it’s certainly a consideration. What I would be very clear about is that it’s not the first or controlling driver … We want to manage those resources effectively, and if there are ways to reduce those costs while staying consistent with our driving values of health and safety, we’ll do that.”
Carey expressed confidence in the University’s ability to continue monitoring the COVID situation and the need for future policy changes without mandatory testing. When asked about any future plans to further reduce restrictions, Carey said that “the masking mandate indoors would be the most logical next step” and that “it’s an ongoing conversation and discussion, but there’s no plan or timeline at this point.”