On Wednesday evening, the College sent out a News Bulletin to the Kenyon community reporting that, as of 6:14 p.m., there were 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases on campus — the highest number of cases Kenyon has had at once since the onset of the pandemic.
This announcement was a dramatic increase from the eight active cases reported on Monday just two days before. Despite this surge, the College has as of yet elected not to provide testing for all students.
The bulletin included a link to a new set of guidelines: a shift to takeout dining, a reminder about the mask mandate — which has expanded to include roommates in their own residences — and restrictions on the size and location of gatherings, which now must be outdoor and contain no more than 10 students. Additionally, students are no longer allowed to leave Knox County and it is unclear as to whether or not students will be allowed to travel off campus for October break. Classes will remain in person, and students may still use the Lowry Center and other recreational facilities on campus.
Despite the new restrictions, athletic competitions will continue and prospective students and their families may continue to visit campus.
According to Professor of Biology and Chair of the Wastewater Testing Subcommittee of the Public Health Working Group Joan Slonczewski, certain faculty members foresaw this outcome and warned the COVID-19 Steering Committee before the start of the semester that students should be tested upon arrival. In a year when Kenyon saw its largest-ever enrollment and a severe housing shortage, Slonczewski said an outbreak of this scale could have been avoided. “The assumption is that this virus will spread all over the place. If students are packed three to a room, how else can it be?” they said.
These concerns were only exacerbated when the testing subcommittee reported a recent spike of 1,000,000 copies per liter of viral RNA detected in the wastewater system of the Village of Gambier on August 26 — the highest level that has ever been recorded in Gambier.
Since students arrived on campus, Kenyon has had less data than previous semesters on what its COVID-19 landscape looks like, as the College’s policy remains to only test unvaccinated and symptomatic individuals. According to Slonczewski, 50 members of Kenyon’s faculty signed a letter that was sent to the COVID-19 Steering Committee advocating for the College to test all students and faculty regardless of vaccination status.
Despite this collective effort, faculty received pushback for their letter and were told by members of the Steering Committee that COVID-19 was now a regular condition to be treated like other illnesses, according to Slonczewski. Additionally, an administrative member told Slonczewski that “that the faculty should manage academics and leave COVID management to the COVID committee,” they said.
Given the increased density of student housing, restrictive testing policies and the rejection of faculty calls to action, Slonzcewski concluded that the College was operating under the assumption that the spread of COVID-19 among vaccinated students and staff was expected and accepted. “I think the College wants to assume that all young people are vaccinated and therefore it’s not a major concern if they get a little sick and get over it,” they said. Slonzcewski warned, however, that COVID-19 attacks multiple organ systems, and can possibly cause long-term brain fog as well as loss of taste and smell.
The bulletin reported that the College will expand student testing and the number of beds available for isolation housing, but did not include provisions for mandatory testing for all students and employees, or a plan to ascertain the extent of community infection. The bulletin also discouraged students from seeking out their own rapid tests, warning they are less accurate than the PCR tests that the College provides. However, the College is not providing tests for all students, leaving those who want or need to get tested with few other options.
By contrast, Slonzcewski insisted that the only way to slow transmission is to test everyone immediately. “I believe the College should hand out these 15-minute tests. Everybody gets tested,” they said. “These tests are so cheap that if you don’t like the result, you can take it again and confirm.” While the bulletin discouraged rapid testing, citing false positives as a reason, Slonczewski drew a distinction between medical diagnosis and the need for community surveillance. They said that campus-wide rapid testing would have a very low false-positive rate, while also enabling immediate response with repeat testing.
Village Mayor Leeman Kessler echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the connection between the health outcomes of Kenyon and Knox County as a whole. “Testing is one of the big tools we have to know where we’re at. … I trust that [Kenyon] will make the right call and do what’s necessary, both for their health and the health of the broader community,” he said. Kessler also highlighted the importance of rapid-testing options for students and community members who want to be tested, noting that Knox Public Health provides free testing kits to those who want them.
While it is unclear how many students, staff and faculty have contracted the virus, Slonczewski insists that there is still hope for stopping the spread, and keeping as many people healthy as possible. “We can still do this now and avoid 30 cases becoming 300,” they said.
Director of Cox Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith could not be reached for comment.
News Editor Adam Margolis contributed to reporting