The Collegian
Tuesday, August 03, 2021

4

Total cumulative cases

569

Total COVID-19 tests

0.7%

Total positivity

2

Current cases

0.7%

Current monthly positivity rate

OPINION: Is U of R More Concerned With The Pandemic Or PR?

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

The University of Richmond began its spring semester on Jan. 19, and is allowing students to attend classes in person, just as it did in the fall. All students were required to take a UR-administered COVID-19 test and receive a negative result before attending classes in person. I was not able to take a test until Jan. 22 because of the allotted testing slot for off-campus students. So, I attended classes remotely for the first week.

At 6:25 p.m. on Jan. 24, an email sent to all students popped into my inbox from Jeffrey Legro, UR’s executive vice president and provost; David Hale, executive vice president and chief operating officer; and Steve Bisese, vice president for student development. The email informed students that initial COVID-19 testing results showed an astounding 17% positivity rate among students living off campus, far greater than the 1.4% among those living on campus. Because of this, the email stated, undergraduate students living off campus must remain off campus and take classes remotely until Feb 8.

“At this time, undergraduate students living off campus may only return to campus for the following reasons: 

  • Accessing the Student Health Center for medical care;
  • Participating in mandatory University prevalence testing; or
  • Picking up pre-reserved library materials from the cart outside the entrance of the Library or class materials from the bookstore using the mobile bookstore located on the Forum.”

This has various implications for students living off campus, many of which may be counter to the administration’s intentions. Some of my peers residing off campus who have decided to purchase gym memberships, because they can no longer access the Weinstein Center. Off-campus students who once relied on UR’s dining services are now more likely to go to grocery stores and restaurants to eat, or otherwise use grocery delivery apps that are more expensive because of delivery and service fees. Some of my friends who live off campus also rely on paychecks from their on-campus jobs, which they will now not receive for two weeks, and maybe longer.

I cover our men’s basketball team for ESPN Richmond (99.5 FM), a venture I began in 2019. Since then, I have spent upwards of 20 hours a week covering the team, with my work including writing articles, hosting and producing the Spider Scoop Podcast, making radio appearances ( as of Tuesday getting my own radio show), and watching every single game. I even drove eight hours round trip on a Saturday my first year to cover what would be a 20-loss Spider team get pummeled by the Davidson Wildcats.

Yeah, I am kind of nuts.

When I saw the Jan. 24 email about the new policy for off-campus students, I was not that worried about being able to cover Friday’s basketball game between #22 Saint Louis and the Spiders. A multitude of media members, including some employed by UR, traveled to Philadelphia for the Spiders’ game at Saint Joseph’s University on Tuesday and would also be given credentials for Friday. In fact, media members who cover the Billikens would have been traveling, presumably by plane, from Missouri to watch the game inside the Robins Center on Friday.

Considering I attend games in the capacity of an ESPN Richmond journalist and not a student reporter and that I received a negative COVID-19 result from last Saturday, I figured I would be let into this game.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. A public relations representative of the Athletics Department informed me on Wednesday that because of the new policy prohibiting off-campus students from coming on campus, I was not be granted entry Friday. The representative told me that it was not a decision from the Athletics Department but rather from the UR administration.

This is the first time I have ever been denied a media credential. Ever.

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I was able to connect with Bisese over the phone on Wednesday to request an exemption so I could cover the game.

To me, my case to him seemed reasonable:

I tested negative less than a week ago. I scheduled a rapid COVID-19 test with CVS at 2:50 p.m. on Friday (a measure media members are not required to do to attend games); my reputation as a journalist is solid; I would not be at the game in a student capacity; other media members, who had gone to Philadelphia this very week or traveled to Richmond from other states, would be allowed into the game. 

Unfortunately, Bisese informed me that the off-campus student ban was a non-exception policy, regardless of employment or other reasons. He explained how he had been fielding a multitude of calls with all sorts of exemption requests for students to come on campus and that it would not be fair to grant one only to me. He told me that absolutely no undergraduate students who lived off campus would be allowed on campus during the two-week period.

This is blatantly false. 

I pointed out to Bisese that UR was allowing student-athletes who lived off campus to come to campus to use athletic facilities. He told me repeatedly that no off-campus students were granted exceptions to come on campus even after I explained this. He fumbled for words, returning to the same rhetoric: no exceptions.  

My intel about student-athletes before speaking to Bisese was not on record, so after the call I reached out to redshirt senior Joe Mancuso, quarterback for UR football, to get some clarity. 

“Undergrad and graduate student athletes are allowed to come on campus,” he wrote in a text, referring to student-athletes living off campus, “but graduate students are able to go to athletic facilities, dining hall and other food places only, while undergrad student athletes are just allowed to use the athletic facilities.” 

Athletic facilities include the Robins Center, the only building I was seeking entry to as a credentialed media member. Mancuso wrote that the student-athlete exception came from “higher ups in the administration,” elaborating that those higher-ups had held a Zoom meeting on Sunday with student-athletes about access on campus. 

Either there is a massive miscommunication going on between the Athletics Department and the administration or Bisese was simply being coy with me. I lean toward the latter.

I understand Bisese not wanting to give one-time exceptions to this policy to most students, but my requested exemption was one the school had already been granting. I, an off-campus student, was requesting access to a facility, the Robins Center, that other off-campus students (student-athletes) are currently allowed into.

But I should not make this just about me.

UR instituted the off-campus student ban to “protect the greatest number of people in our community and provide the University with the safest path to residential education this spring,” according to the Jan. 24 email. I appreciate that UR is taking these measures to protect our community, which includes myself. 

However, I do not believe UR’s goal is truly to “protect the greatest number of people.” The goal is to protect the administration’s public image.

A junior living off-campus, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me about a concerning situation regarding the results of his UR-administered COVID-19 test from last weekend. “[UR] called me to say I’m positive and provide some protocols and insights about what I should do next,” the student told me. “I asked them what type of test I was given, and they let me know that it was a rapid antigen test, and added that the university treats any positive results as legit, and the possibility of having a false positive is very low.”  

test result.jpg

A screenshot of a test result notification from the Health Center written to a current UR student, who shared the screenshot with The Collegian under the condition of anonymity. 

The student’s test result alert, accessible on his student health portal online and sent before the phone call, said his COVID-19 test was a “lab test,” which commonly refers to PCR tests.

This is important, because PCR tests are far more accurate than antigen tests for asymptomatic people. The student was and is currently asymptomatic. Rapid antigen tests can also return a much higher rate of false positives than many might expect, despite what UR told the student.

I took my COVID-19 test two days before that student. It seems odd that UR would choose to give some students a more accurate PCR test while giving others a rapid antigen one. I do not know if this was a miscommunication on the school’s part or if it truly is not using one standard of testing across the board. However, there is a clear messaging issue and lack of transparency. I believe protecting as much of its community as possible requires full clarity on all measures being taken.

In a Jan. 19 email, the administration informed students that we would be tested every other week for prevalence testing. This was up from the fall prevalence-testing rate -- last semester, 10% of undergraduate students were selected randomly every other week for testing (increased to 15% on Oct. 5).  

This semester’s prevalence testing is an upgrade, but not enough.  

Consider the case of Northeastern University, another private institution.  It is true that a dense city such as Boston may be a greater COVID-19 threat than UR, yet the difference between the schools’ testing, population size and endowments offers insight into UR’s potential for a greater testing capacity.

Northeastern University tests each of its 14,202 undergraduate students every three days, a policy it had in place for the fall semester as well. NU also requires three negative test results at the beginning of the semester before students may attend in-person classes.  Keep in mind that NU’s endowment was an estimated $1.1 billion in 2019.

UR requires one negative COVID test of its students before they may return to in person classes, and as previously mentioned instituted a new policy that will test all of its undergraduate students once every 14 days.  UR’s endowment is an estimated $2.5 billion, which was not significantly impacted by the pandemic recession, according to a Collegian article from last October.

I will not argue that simply because NU tests more rigorously, so should UR.  The location and COVID circumstances differ drastically at the two universities.  However, with an endowment more than twice the size and an undergraduate student population less than 25% of NU’s, UR appears to have the financial capability to test its community significantly more.

I do believe the UR administration cares about the health and safety of its community. But if it wanted to protect the “greatest number of people,” would its first step not be to test as many people as often as possible?  Would it allow numerous media members coming in from St. Louis (possibly by air travel), as well as several from Richmond who this week traveled to and from Philadelphia, to enter the Robins Center with no testing data -- while barring a student it knows was negative last weekend, who was also getting a rapid antigen test on Friday? Would it make a policy with “no exceptions” that bans off-campus students from campus, including the Robins Center, but then allow many off-campus undergraduate student-athletes into that very same facility? Would it mislead students, either intentionally or unintentionally, about its testing methods?

The University of Richmond does care about the health and safety of its students, no doubt. However, its COVID-19 protocols are being applied inconsistently and without full transparency.

Does UR care more about the pandemic or public relations?

Contact contributor Noah Goldberg at noah.goldberg@richmond.edu.

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