The University of Chicago announced that it would stop “provid[ing] routine surveillance testing for COVID-19” after nearly three years of aggressive COVID policies.
UChicago issued the statement on the afternoon of March 23 via email to students and staff. Katie Callow-Wright, the executive vice president of the university, wrote, “[A]s part of our evolving response to COVID-19, the University is taking steps that reflect the growing integration of COVID-19 testing and care into regular healthcare services.”
The university holds that “relatively low levels of cases we have seen this academic year” and the “decrease in our community’s use of many COVID-19 resources, including asymptomatic testing,” warrant the policy change.
History of the University of Chicago’s COVID Policy
Below, UChicago’s dynamic COVID policies are outlined to contextualize the recent announcement.
Before the start of the 2020–2021 academic year, in an August 26 announcement, UChicago mandated that “students living on campus will have weekly, mandatory testing for COVID-19,” in addition to testing upon arrival, and quarantine for 10–14 days depending on your home state, even with a negative test result. Shortly after, on September 9, the university extended this requirement to “in-season varsity student-athletes who live off-campus.”
The university “required” all members to “report any concern about COVID-19 related public health violation,” under the University of Chicago Accident Incident Reporting (UCAIR) System, including “concerns about [other’s] PPE usage . . . concerns about social distancing and density . . . concerns about cleaning and disinfection . . . concerns about individuals at work who should not be . . . any other COVID-19 related public health concerns.”
UChicago announced the creation of medical records for all students on February 24, and provided instructions to opt out of the program: “the choice you need to address now is whether you want UCM to create a medical record for you, which is required for anyone who receives a vaccine through the University clinic. If you decide that you do not want a medical record created, you need to opt out.” This opt out choice was not available to those who already had previously received COVID testing or other medical treatment through the university.
While the majority of students on campus had a medical record created by the university without their permission, a select few who had avoided testing were offered the choice. Less than three months later, this medical freedom was rescinded for students.
A joint announcement on May 18 from Ka Yee C. Lee, provost, and Michele Rasmussen, dean of students in the university, stated that “starting with the 2021 Autumn Quarter the University of Chicago will require all students to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.” This requirement only applied to students, while “the University continues to encourage academic appointees, staff, contractors/vendors, guests and visitors to be vaccinated as well, and is exploring whether COVID-19 vaccines will be required for these groups.”
In a summer announcement on July 13, Lee and Callow-Wright, announced, “[A]ny University employee working on campus or at a University facility in the Chicago area who does not upload proof of full COVID-19 vaccination for any reason will be required to participate in the University’s weekly COVID-19 testing program, wear a mask at all times in any University facility with limited exceptions, and potentially follow other mitigation measures.” The university failed to apply the same strict vaccination requirements to faculty and staff, and these alternatives to vaccination were not extended to students uncomfortable with the then-new vaccines.
The next day, the administration announced instructions for sharing medical information regarding vaccination status. Then the school rescinded the weekly-testing alternative for faculty and staff on September 22: “There will no longer be an option for employees who do not receive an exemption to participate in weekly testing in lieu of vaccination.”
On December 20, the university announced that “more than 98% of employees, and 97% of students are compliant with the [vaccine] requirement.” Despite these near-perfect levels of compliance, the university required more action from students and employees, announcing that “by January 31, 2022, students and employees will need to submit proof of receiving a booster shot or apply for an approved exemption.” Additionally, “face coverings are required at all times, with limited exceptions, for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals while in University buildings. Lowering masks while speaking in class is no longer permitted.”
The administration announced a delayed start to the winter quarter on December 23 in light of “the rapid spread of COVID-19, due in part to the Omicron variant, [which] has surpassed previous projections both locally and nationally.”
A week later, the school incentivized students to receive the booster when eligible by lording “mandatory weekly testing requirements” and threatening “prohibit[ion] from accessing campus facilities or registering for courses” as well as “other disciplinary consequences.”
When the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened its isolation guidelines on December 27, 2021, UChicago responded with shorter COVID isolation period guidelines on December 31.
On May 11, the university changed its policy from mandatory masking to recommended masking, stating that “the decision to mask is your own.”
The administration reiterated the vaccine mandate for the 2022–2023 academic year on July 26, requiring students to “provide proof that they have received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.” Additionally, the school reintroduced the alternative of weekly testing in lieu of vaccination. The booster was recommended but not compulsory, as it had been previously.
At the start of the current academic year, on September 29, the university announced it “will no longer require weekly testing for people who have not been vaccinated.” This announcement came alongside a “campus vaccination rate of more than 95%,” which had decreased from December 2021. This policy was inspired by the CDC’s recommendation to stop surveillance testing of asymptomatic people.
Implications and Future Action
With the decline of mandatory testing for university students and staff resulting in the “steady decreases in our community’s use of many COVID-19 resources, including asymptomatic testing,” the “relatively low levels of cases we have seen this academic year” seemingly follow.
In addition to ceasing routine surveillance, the university will no longer require the reporting of COVID cases to the university and will suspend all contact tracing and the weekly COVID campus data updates by April 3.
Kenzi Bustamante is a third-year in the College studying Biology and Public Policy. Her Christian faith encourages her to balance truth and grace in everything she does. She grew up in rural Missouri and has enjoyed broadening her cultural knowledge through language and study-abroad programs at the University of Chicago.