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Should Colleges Shift Burden of Contact Tracing onto Their Students?

With the start of the new semester, it won’t be long before time-strapped college students are juggling classes, papers, projects, exams, jobs, extracurriculars, and more—all while trying to enjoy a fulfilling social life. The last thing they need is something else to stress about. 

Yet at colleges and universities around the country, it appears many students will be responsible for handling their own contact tracing for COVID-19. Schools that took on that burden themselves for the first two-plus years of the pandemic now seem to be handing at least part of the onus onto their students. 

Amherst College in Massachusetts, for example, released a statement on Aug. 5 announcing it would continue to track individual reported cases of COVID-19 on campus, but was no longer contact tracing for close contacts. Per the statement: “If you test positive for COVID-19, you are asked to reach out to anyone with whom you have recently had close contact and encourage them to watch themselves for symptoms and to get tested if they feel symptomatic.” 

At Central Florida University, meanwhile, contact tracing and case-tracking on the COVID 19 dashboard have been over since the end of the spring semester, according to a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel. 

These are just two of many examples of schools easing their contact tracing efforts or eliminating them altogether.  

It’s understandable why colleges would want to give up this responsibility. Contact tracing is time-consuming, pulls school administrators away from other tasks, and can be a drain on internal resources. With COVID cases trending downward (at least for the time being) and the CDC recently loosening its COVID guidelines, there isn’t the same sense of urgency surrounding the virus. 

But COVID-19 isn’t gone, and likely never will be. The emergence of monkeypox and other diseases could further complicate schools’ disease management efforts.  

“COVID is not quite as scary as it was three years ago. However, it is not gone,” Gerri Taylor, co-leader of the COVID Task Force for the American College Health Association, recently told NPR. “So colleges really cannot be complacent at this point. They’ve got to watch numbers. They’ve got to watch trends on campus, trends in the local community, in their state, and be able to pivot very quickly.” 

Asking students to handle their own contact tracing doesn’t seem like the smartest strategy for limiting the spread of the virus. Imagine this scenario: a student tests positive a couple of days after attending a big party or social event. Are they really going to take the time to inform everybody they interacted with at the party, especially if they’re not feeling well? And even if they did try to reach out, would they know the right questions to ask? Would they feel comfortable asking about vaccination status or other personal information? 

Probably not.  

“The students are not equipped. They’re too young to be able to take on that burden and really be responsible, because they’re college kids, and they want that college experience,” says Dawn Stolte, VP of Operations at PubSEG (Public Safety and Economic Growth). “At the beginning of the pandemic, if students were given 24 hours before they went into isolation, what do you think they were doing with those 24 hours? They were having parties and exposing much of the campus. College kids don’t always make the most responsible decisions.” 

For students with disabilities, anxiety, medical issues, or any added challenges beyond the day-to-day pressures of college life, the burden of contact tracing and worrying if classmates will take it seriously can weigh even heavier. 

During an Emerson College (Massachusetts) COVID-19 question-and-answer session this summer, Kristina Reynolds, co-president of the Student Disability Union, expressed concern about the school’s decision to end contact tracing in May. 

“I don’t feel comfortable with the school passing that responsibility on to my peers,” Kristina said, as reported by the school newspaper, the Berkely Beacon. “I don’t necessarily trust all of my peers to be able to inform me that I have been exposed.” 

So how can colleges and universities eliminate the burden of contact tracing without passing the responsibility onto their students—while still doing everything possible to keep their campus and classrooms safe? 

One solution is to partner with an outside company that specializes in all aspects of disease case management. PubSEG has been helping schools limit the spread of COVID-19 since our inception, and with the new PubSEG Portal, we’re able to do the job even more efficiently.     

From contact tracing to vaccine and booster verification to religious exemptions to case reporting, PubSEG can take the onus off your shoulders so your staff—and your students—can concentrate on the things that matter most to them. 

“PubSEG relieves students of the burden of COVID, so they’re better able to focus on their college experience, or even preserve the academic integrity of their experience,” says PubSEG Director of Client Onboarding Ira Lawson.  

If you’re looking to keep COVID-19 preventative strategies in place this semester but are tired of taking on the burden yourselves, give us a call at 856-240-8117 or email contact@pubseg.com. We’d love to talk about ways we can help keep your students and faculty healthy.