Students respond to UI COVID-19 policies, reduced testing hours

By Matt Troher, Assistant Features Editor

The beginning of the semester brought the promise of classes without masks, continuing the return to normalcy that had been building over the past year. 

The first week of classes saw a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases, prompting the University to send a Massmail on Friday evening, “strongly encouraging” students to wear face coverings during classes for the next few weeks. 

Two weeks into the semester, both the COVID-19 positivity rate and the number of positive tests have outpaced figures from the past two years. 

The average daily positivity rate this semester is 17.8%, with an average of 179 positive tests per day. These figures stand in stark contrast to the first two weeks of the Fall 2021 semester, which had an average daily positivity rate of 0.76% and an average of 34 positive tests per day. In 2020, when students were required to test under the threat of discipline, these figures were .87% and 106, respectively. 

The University’s response to this semester’s sharp increase in COVID-19 cases has elicited mixed reactions from the student body, with some students urging the University to do more and others hoping for a continued return to normal.

Madeline Udelhofen, senior in LAS, said she has been taking numerous precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19, even prior to this semester’s spike, as her family has a history of autoimmune disorders.

Although she is only taking online classes this semester, Udelhofen said the University’s Massmail is “laughable.”

“I feel like it’s laughable, not in the way that I’m anti-mask, but because I think that this is something the University should have been taking into consideration before school even started,” Udelhofen said. “I was glad that they’re mentioning it at least, but at the same time, the request isn’t really going to change very much. I’m very disappointed that they haven’t chosen to do more.”

Udelhofen said she’s trying to stay involved during her senior year, but COVID-19 exposures abound have made campus life difficult.

“I feel like I hardly go to this University anymore because everything I do is just on my computer now,” Udelhofen said. “But at the same time, with the rate of spread, it seems like (COVID-19) is everywhere around us. I’ve gone to a couple of club meetings and I’ve already been exposed to COVID-19 multiple times.”

Garrett Forrest, junior in LAS, serves as the president of Illinois Student Government. The day following the University’s Massmail on Aug. 29, Forrest and Vindhya Kalipi, junior in LAS and ISG vice president, posted a statement to the student government’s social media channels, urging students to wear masks in classrooms and limit unmasked social gatherings.

The statement also called for the University to increase its testing capacities. As of Friday, the University is only operating one testing location, compared to 16 locations in 2020 and four locations in 2021.

The only testing site, located in the Illini Union, is open from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is closed on weekends. The Illini Union, along with various other locations on campus, is offering free take-home tests. However, the Illini Union ran out of take-home tests on Friday. 

“We’ve got to have more testing, and I think everybody should get tested,” Forrest said. “At this point, you don’t know when you’ve been exposed, you don’t know if you’re an asymptomatic positive and possibly spreading it to other people.”

On Aug. 11, the University sent a Massmail outlining its COVID-19 testing policies, predicting a rush at the beginning of the semester and asking vaccinated students to avoid the on-campus testing site. 

“Seeing the numbers skyrocket as much as they have, it became clear that we are no longer talking about a theoretical problem, and we’re talking about a real problem on our campus,” Forrest said. “We need to press the University to take some actions.”

Niko Johnson-Fuller, junior in LAS, criticized the University’s response, highlighting the stark contrast between the University’s COVID-19 policies during this year and the return to campus of years past.

“The University’s response has shown a lack of care toward the health of the student body and the community at large,” Johnson-Fuller said. “We’ve seen in past semesters that the University has implemented a fair amount of measures when people are coming back to school … such as online classes for the first week and having testing requirements when you get back to campus. There was no reason we couldn’t do that again.”

Johnson-Fuller, who also serves as a co-chair of the University’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, also noted that a collective response is needed to combat the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases.

“While we want to encourage individuals to take these actions, that is never going to be enough to stop the problem,” Johnson-Fuller said. “We should be seeing this as a collective problem. If more and more people come together to stand up for what they believe in and to stand up for public safety and health, then that’s the best way to make sure that you are protecting others around you.”

Despite the criticism from some segments of the student body, not every student has been critical of the University’s response. Jacob Tentis, senior in Engineering, said he has no strong opinions on the University’s Massmail that encourages masking in classrooms and said he thinks a potential mask mandate reinstatement would constitute overreach.

“I think that a mask mandate is kind of security theater and doesn’t actually have a very significant effect — if any — on the rate of COVID-19 in a community,” Tentis said. “Especially since the mandate would only apply to classrooms and not in the surrounding community.”

While Tentis said he thinks reinstating a mask mandate would be too drastic, he criticized the reductions of the University’s testing system. He noted that, while he’s skeptical about the effectiveness of masks in regard to stopping the spread of COVID-19, expanded testing options could be successful.

“Reducing (testing sites) to just the Union with just very limited weekday hours is a mistake on the University’s part,” Tentis said. “I think one of the things that universities can do to really help rein in the COVID-19 numbers is to expand testing access. When I went, there was a very long line, and it took a while to do. With classes during the day, it can be very difficult to get out and get a COVID test.”

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