White sign at Willard Straight Hall entrance says "COVID surveillance testing site. You will only be contacted if your result is positive."

Leilani Burke/Sun Staff Photographer

Signs outside of the Willard Straight COVID-19 testing site after the university reduced testing requirements, on March 15, 2022.

March 31, 2022

Students Reflect on Campus COVID-19 Testing Protocols and Possibility of Post-Spring Break Changes

Print More

With 329 active COVID-19 cases on campus — among the highest totals of active cases since December 2021 —- as of March 29, students are asking themselves who is getting still tested, will it stop, and why. 

According to a March 23 University statement, the majority of current positives come from symptomatic individuals getting tested, but there are even more asymptomatic students on campus, and therefore more positives than those counted by the University. 

The University attributed the unexpected rise in cases to a variety of factors, including reduced mask requirements on campus, increased social activities and the emergence of the BA.2 variant despite 92% of students and employees having received a vaccine booster shot.

Some students who were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms reported choosing to get tested because of concerns over their academic performance. 

“I ended up testing because I was feeling symptomatic and, while my symptoms were not extreme, I felt like I couldn’t effectively do my best work under those conditions,” said Ella Benjamin ’24, who tested positive for COVID-19 on March 22. 

For Benjamin, testing positive for COVID-19 — as opposed to being sick with a different illness — was a benefit, allowing her to get more accommodating deadlines from her professors and miss class without losing credit for attendance or missing important lecture content since one of her professors offered her a Zoom option. 

“When I ended up testing positive, I felt relieved as I now was able to have a legitimate excuse to have more time on my work and focus on feeling better without overextending myself,” Benjamin said. 

But for other students, previous testing mandates caused significant stress. Victoria Gong ’25 tested positive for COVID-19 during the December 2021 campus-wide case surge on the day of her last exam. She worried about how testing positive would affect her winter break plans, as well as how it could affect her upcoming summer plans as an international student from Shanghai. 

“China is also very strict about quarantine if you’ve gotten COVID before, and I know of people who had their government enforced quarantine extended to the duration of a month because they tested positive six months ago,” Gong said. 

Cornell’s transition back to a yellow alert level on March 23 — which came after the University ended surveillance testing for fully vaccinated individuals on Feb. 18 and relaxed mask requirements on March 11 — has worried some students, who wonder whether the current opt-in surveillance testing system will be replaced with mandatory testing as students return from spring break.   

“I don’t think there’s an urgent need that testing be reinstated after spring break,” Ariel Schulsinger ’24 said. “Despite the minute spike we’ve had in cases over the past two weeks or so, I haven’t heard of people being severely ill while in quarantine.”

Currently, Cornell is offering any asymptomatic student or employee free antigen testing kits. The University’s COVID-19 response website also states that students are “strongly encouraged” to test before and after their spring break.

Students like Schulsinger prefer this voluntary COVID-19 testing policy to a return to past mandates, like those in place on campus from Sept. 2020 to Feb. 2022.

“Cornell has done an impeccable job of slowly and seamlessly lifting mandates, and, at this point, it is of everyone’s best interest to move in the forward direction,” Schulsinger said. “I think the choice should be left to the individual on how they choose to proceed.”

Anti-surveillance testing sentiments are not new at Cornell. Jane Sidon ’24 has tested positive for COVID-19 twice on required COVID-19 tests while at Cornell. She said that she likely would not have taken those tests if they were not mandated at the time and does not support a return to similar mandates now unless additional accommodations are made for students who test positive. 

“I think that… excused absences for illnesses should be increased throughout the community,” she said. “If [Cornell] is going to require testing again, they should also require teachers to have online options.”

Despite testing positive twice at Cornell and being hospitalized in what she called subpar conditions, Ariana Terenzi ’22 still opposes a return to mandatory testing. “Personally I think the university should stop testing for students who do not want it. It is very expensive and time-consuming for everyone.”

There are also questions about the effectiveness of mandating testing again. Gong said she wonders whether the number of people still exempt from testing for 90 days after testing positive would limit the scope and usefulness of new surveillance testing. 

Despite these concerns, Gong said she would wait to see whether the science says a return to mandatory testing would better protect students. 

“If [mandatory testing] is shown to reduce the spread of COVID and is effective for people who have caught COVID before, I would not mind mandatory testing,” Gong said.