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Rice reports around 50 students as positive due to test site error, disrupting O-Week activities

Photo by Channing Wang | The Rice Thresher
Channing Wang/Thresher

By Talha Arif     8/24/21 11:16pm

Rice reported around 50 cases that were mistakenly detected by a specific testing site as positive for COVID-19, according to an announcement sent by Kevin Kirby, chair of the Crisis Management Committee. This situation led to several students unnecessarily isolating or quarantining during Orientation Week.

Following the news that these positive cases were due to a testing anomaly, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman sent an email to the Rice community on Aug. 24 announcing that consumption of alcohol was now permitted on campus and students can resume indoor dining at reduced capacity. Cross-college events that include alcohol are still prohibited. 

The first two days of classes were canceled amidst this testing error. According to Christopher Johns-Krull, chair of the academic restart committee, there is no plan to extend the semester or shorten breaks as a result.

Kirby said Rice ran over 150,000 tests over the past year distributed across their three providers. Initially, results from Rice’s providers this past week showed around 80 positive cases, with one cluster at a specific college, according to Kirby.

“That’s one of the reasons that we really wanted to dig into the data, because these [false] positives were popping up everywhere,” Kirby said. “It was in faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduate students, all different parts of the campus.”

Unlike the test contamination issue in September leading to 17 false positive cases, Kirby said this situation resulted from a protocol change in how the tests were conducted at one of the sites.

“This wasn’t a case of false positives — it was [an] interpretation of the results, using a new and different test that we had not been using,” Kirby said. “These weren’t false positives in the classic sense.”

The Institute of Health Metrics at the University of Washington predicts the United States as a whole should see cases peak in the next two to three weeks. The Texas Medical Center reported 9,217 positive cases in the greater Houston area on August 22, compared to 1,069 new cases per day one month ago. Rice’s COVID dashboard reported 29 positive tests since Aug. 13.

Kirby said he expects to see a drop-off in infections in the Houston area, which will affect Rice’s community in tandem, by mid-to-end September at the latest. 

“Then, what we’ll do is roll back everything. We may roll back our indoor mask requirements, change the testing requirements, gathering size, all of that,” Kirby said. “You’ll start to see us roll those back once we have a good understanding of our campus and once we start to see [Houston] improve, and we expect to see both of those in much better condition a month from now.”

O-Week Adjustments

Araceli Lopez, associate director of First Year Programs, said Rice approached each positive test report during O-Week on a case-by-case basis.

“The Dean’s office, [O-Week] Coordinators and Core Teams were all very thoughtful and strategic on how we moved forward,” Lopez said. “They were constantly thinking of others and adjusting to keep students safe while they assessed their situations while keeping the spirit of O-Week alive.”

Ishaan Rischie, one of the campus wide O-Week student directors, said decision-making was a team effort between the administration and student leaders. 

“While all official decisions and mandates regarding COVID-19 policies were implemented campuswide by the Rice administration, student leaders did have the freedom to encourage stronger precautions within our own colleges,” Rischie, a Jones College senior, said. “Student leaders, particularly the college presidents, were also involved in shaping Rice’s COVID-19 policies in response to what we were seeing at the residential colleges.”

Student Association President Kendall Vining said she would have liked better communication from the administration. Vining’s platform as SA president emphasized a main focus of transparency with the student body.

Vining said student leaders communicated these frustrations to the administration and they have been well received over the past week.

“Already, we are seeing immediate differences in how they communicate with us presidents, and I am sure that will also reflect in future communication from [the] administration to the student body,” Vining said.

Rischie said adapting events in the moment was a stressful process, but he could not be prouder of the efforts to do so.

“It really is a testament to how incredible our student leaders are ... and they deserve the world,” Rischie said.

O-Week Student Experiences

Mezthly Pena, a co-advisor at Sid Richardson college, said she chose to self-isolate during O-Week after her friend she had been in contact with tested positive.

“Out of concern for the advising team and my New Students, I chose to self isolate even though Rice policy stated that I did not have to,” Pena, a Duncan College senior, said. “I received an email about two days after the exposure notifying me that I had been exposed, even though I had been isolating for a while at this point in time.”

Lopez said it was not too difficult to adapt to virtual events during the week since a number of events were already virtual, just hosted in an in-person location, and last year provided a framework for this year.

Pena said it was very difficult to miss O-Week activities and said she was barely able to interact with her group during isolation since there were not a large amount of online events.

“Even when I was present at O-Week events, it was quite isolating since I was the only person online,” Pena said. “It felt like I was watching something happen rather than being a part of it. It was very discouraging and emotionally and mentally draining, and the other advisors in isolation with me seemed to have the same kind of sentiment.”

Once students were notified that the tests were falsely detected as positive, Pena said she was able to leave immediately. She had received a negative PCR test and performed a rapid test on herself before leaving. 

Sage Sabharwal, a transfer student at Baker College, said he received a positive test on Wednesday, and was eventually released Friday after two negative tests. He said he received information about retesting at midnight the night before the test at 7:30 a.m. 

“[This was] not adequate for us to plan sleep, especially during O-Week,” Sabharwal said. “We were also told that we would receive disciplinary action for not showing up to [these] tests, when it was not our fault for testing positive falsely.”

Sabharwal said the entire experience was extremely taxing on himself and his entire O-Week group.

“It greatly affected our morale and mental stability, and if it weren’t for my advisors who worked tirelessly to keep us in the loop and happy and sane, O-Week would have been a complete disaster,” Sabharwal said.

Rachel Moore, McMurtry College president, said McMurtry adjusted during O-Week to account for the emotional toll that the emerging news had on students.

“This meant moving our early morning mock bike to the afternoon so students ... could get more sleep,” Moore, a senior, said. “We also added a few blocks of free time and encouraged everyone to take breaks when necessary. Our advising team did a great job helping support the new students both logistically and emotionally.”

Gabriela Quintero, a freshman at Baker College, said she was moved to Lovett College when she tested “positive.” On the second day of her isolation, another student who was experiencing symptoms joined her in isolation, although Quintero was asymptomatic.

“With her being symptomatic, I requested a new isolation situation and was notified within half a day,” Quintero said. “Instead of moving to a close college … I was moved to McMurtry. That was a trip for sure, because I was escorted by RUPD and had to pack my stuff yet again.”

Quintero said she was a little frustrated with the whole process, but said she understands the Crisis Management team was overworked during the week.

“[I think] the [Crisis Management] team did everything in their power to help me and make me feel comfortable during this crazy time,” Quintero said. “But in the end, I think it was a learning experience for everyone. Rice found a better protocol, and I can now pack a go bag for 10 days of isolation in 30 minutes.”

Kirby said he is not aware of any other coherent community with a vaccination rate as high as Rice’s. Amidst the FDA approving the first COVID-19 vaccine on August 23, Kirby encouraged the rest of the Rice community to get vaccinated if they have not.

[8/25/2021 at 9:30 a.m.] This story was updated with Ishaan Rischie’s correct title. He is a campus wide O-Week student director, not  a campus wide O-Week coordinator. 

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