UC Berkeley must step up its COVID-19 tracking policies

CAMPUS AFFAIRS: While headed in the right direction, campus policies should reflect the unsteady nature of the current reprieve from high infection rates.

Illustration of students and COVID walking to school
Amanda Tsang/Staff

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Though often seen as a pioneer in policy change, UC Berkeley seems to lag behind other institutions when it comes to returning to campus this fall. Students and staff are excited to be back in classrooms. But if campus wants to maintain this heartening step toward normalcy, it must do more than follow state guidelines.

Student vaccination rates of about 96% and rates for faculty and staff, which are 89%, are encouraging. Required testing for those who are vaccinated on campus every 90 to 180 days, initial self-sequestering for unvaccinated campus residents, weekly testing for unvaccinated individuals and mask mandates for indoor facilities are crucial policies. Campus has taken essential steps to safely begin the semester in person. The issue is sustaining progress.

Beginning in September, UC Berkeley is mandating vaccinated campus housing residents get tested at least once a month. Campus is also considering requiring randomized surveillance testing for all students. These COVID-19 testing requirements are, however, bare-minimum policies that could make it difficult to accurately track campus infection rates and may not prevent an outbreak.

According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, UC Berkeley is “mindful that being tested is a burden,” which campus does not want to require without “appropriate justification.” This includes changes in public health ordinances, rates of infection among the campus community and adherence to mask mandates.

Campus must do more to prevent any potential COVID-19 related disasters, instead of adjusting its approach after it’s too late. UC Berkeley should take a page out of UCLA’s book and require all students, staff and faculty to be tested weekly or, at the very least, biweekly.

Not only should campus increase testing, but it should also check its existing COVID-19 tracking systems more frequently. According to Gilmore, the eTang testing badge and daily symptom screener are only inspected before entry to University Health Services and Residential and Student Service Programs buildings, though it’s being considered for other buildings. Only a fraction of UC Berkeley’s more than 40,000 students enter these buildings, meaning thousands of students’ testing badges and symptom screeners aren’t checked.

UC Berkeley has considered the highly contagious delta variant while establishing its COVID-19 policies in consultation with local public health authorities and campus experts. But campus should do more, especially considering students who are vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as vulnerable families of students and faculty are still at risk.

We are swimming in uncharted waters, and many students and instructors want assurance that we will stay on campus and transparency regarding potential outbreaks. While UC Berkeley can’t offer any guarantees and is already taking essential steps, it needs to go beyond these basic guidelines. In-person learning environments cannot be authentically recreated online, and campus has a responsibility to do everything possible to give its students the education they are paying for.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2021 opinion editor, Emily Hom.