Sitting alone inside a nondescript M Building training room, medical assistant Melissa Harlow awaited a steady stream of students at the San Diego City College COVID-19 testing site on Nov. 10.
City gerontology student Esperanza Torres-Gies paused at the bottom of the L Building stairs, adjusted her mobility cane, and secured her hand on the railing to start the climb.
A few minutes before 10 a.m., Torres-Gies turned the corner into room M-206, and checked in with Harlow, who swabbed her nose.
“For me being visually challenged, disabled, it is a challenge,” Torres-Gies said after her test. “I have to go to the High Tech Center so they can go into the programs, but it is kind of complicated for me, so I try just to come here and say ‘can I have an appointment,’ because for me going through the internet, it is a challenge.”
Harlow said normally students need an appointment, but as long as the medical assistant can find them in the Cleared4 system, Harlow will do what she can to ensure the walk-ins get tested so they don’t have to miss class.
City College has partnered with Biocept, a provider of molecular diagnostic assays, products and services, according to its website, to offer free onsite testing on Wednesdays and Thursdays, according to the San Diego Community College District website.
All district testing sites will be closed Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of Thanksgiving week, as stated in an email by SDCCD Vice Chancellor of Human Resources Gregory Smith.
Torres-Gies’ experience highlighted a few of the challenges of the Cleared4 system, used to verify student compliance with testing requirements. The system allows students to book tests on campus or upload third party results from San Diego County locations, according to the district website.
While the number of tests completed started as a trickle, City’s testing location now averages 85 tests per week, according to Jack Beresford, SDCCD director of communications and public relations.
“No positive tests have been conducted on campus or loaded through our system in Cleared4 for City College (as of Oct. 27),” Beresford wrote in an email.
The SDCCD Positive Case Rate report for Nov. 14, 2021 shows a total of 205 student COVID-19 cases at City since September 2020, with four student cases so far in November.
“Numbers outside that,” Beresford wrote, “would be from the county that Risk Management receives notifications on.”
The trend of student cases at City shown on the district’s positive case report — with peaks in January and August — parallels San Diego County cases, according to the county’s Nov. 17 COVID-19 weekly update. They also both indicate cases leveling off in November at a higher level than during the summer.
The district website report on COVID-19 trends and data on Nov. 4 stated, “the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated (San Diego County) residents rose to 0.84 per 100,000, more than 14 times higher than the rate for vaccinated residents, which was 0.06 per 100,000 residents.”
Torres-Gies said her results have normally taken two to three days, but after her most recent test on Thursday, the results weren’t available until Monday afternoon, so she had to miss part of her class Monday.
“But I have met other challenges,” said Torres-Gies, who earned a mental health worker certificate from City in 2020, “so this is another one, but they are trying, you know. We’re all trying. It’s not easy.”
The website for Biocept stated that it performs “PCR-based testing” and most results will be available within 48 hours of Biocept’s receipt of the sample.
Timing of test results has affected other students too.
Anthony Miller, an aviation maintenance technology student at Miramar College, said he has a religious exemption that requires he gets tested weekly to obtain a green pass he can show teachers to enter class.
Miller said he came to the City location because it is close to his work, and he has class four days each week.
“If you wanted to be current,” Miller said, “without any hiccups and missing class you would have to get tested a day early and you couldn’t get tested on the same day on a weekly basis.”
He said this was such a challenge that he reached out to the district, and the issue was addressed by extending the green pass from seven days to eight days after the results.
“It was tough,” Miller said. “It led to me missing two classes because the results hadn’t come in when initially they were coming in quick. That’s when I made a polite fuss about it to the dean of student services and it got fixed. He was very helpful.”
According to Beresford, 87% of students in the district who are registered for on-campus or partially online classes have proof of vaccination on file. This leaves the remaining students who are required to attend any in-person classes to comply with weekly testing.
This equates to 171 students at City College, Beresford wrote in an email.
Other campus activities may also require COVID-19 testing beyond the class mandate.
Two City baseball players arrived for their test Nov. 10. One of the athletes said he was enrolled only in online classes, but was required to test to participate in scrimmages.
Aldo Ley, a theatre major at City was required to test to perform in Twelfth Night, which closed Nov. 6 at the Saville Theatre.
“We had to come every week to get tested,” Ley said, “so this is my fourth time that I’ve been here. And even though the play is over, I’m still testing regularly just to be safe.”
Ley said the first time he was tested, he got results the same night, but now it’s been taking one or two days.
Dance students Tina Carreras and Eszter Bogdany came for testing in preparation for their Nov. 20 performance at the Saville Theatre.
“We had to get tested in order to do our whole tech week and even perform next week,” Carreras said. “Even though I’m vaccinated they want us all to make sure that we’re not bringing anything in.”
Dancers are required to wear masks in the studio space, Carreras said, but will be allowed to be maskless while performing at the theatre. Performers will need to mask up until they get to the stage, then, “right before you go on we pull these guys off,” she said, motioning to her mask.
Carreras said this was her first time testing at the City site. She had hoped to test closer to the performance date, but found no appointments for the next week.
“I think they’ve been doing a great job,” Carreras said. “I feel comfortable here at City coming, masking, knowing that my peers are either vaccinated or are negative. They’re masked too, so it doesn’t feel like there’s this separation.”
Bogdany, who is from Hungary, described the protocol at City as very cautious.
“We do have to wear a mask in class, even if we’re vaccinated,” Bogdany said, “but … maybe it’s good to have this extra caution.”
Nov. 10 was Bogdany’s first time testing at the M Building also. She said when she received the link about testing, it seemed complicated at first.
“I have to print something out regarding health insurance, which I don’t have,” Bogdany said, ”so I had to sign something then attach it and then get the appointment.”
But she said the process was easier than she expected, calling it a positive surprise.
According to the district website, insurance is not required for the free test, but you will be asked to upload either a photo of your insurance card or a signed affidavit that you do not have health insurance.
During the Nov. 8 chancellor’s forum, SDCCD Vice Chancellor of Human Resources
Smith said he does not anticipate changes to the COVID-19 protocol for students heading into spring 2022.
“If the situation dramatically improves,” Smith said, “and the federal government and state government lift their emergency orders, that would certainly change things. But short of that happening, I wouldn’t anticipate any changes at this time.”
Smith also said SDCCD employees will be required to be fully vaccinated, or have an approved exemption or accommodation by Dec. 1. Fully vaccinated is considered to be 14 days after the final dose, with boosters not required, he said.
Susan Topham, vice chancellor of educational services, noted a slight modification for spring 2022. Students taking a class with any in-person component will need to upload proof of vaccination prior to registering for a course, unless they have an approved exemption.
The forum also highlighted the wide range of impacts COVID-19 has had on the district.
Topham said SDCCD has seen, “a decrease in our student population, especially our Black students and our other marginalized groups.”
Topham showed a slide indicating wide disparities between various groups, such as a 45% drop in attendance among Native American students and a 14% drop for Latinx students, yet a 4% increase in White students at district colleges between fall 2019 and fall 2020.
While students and employees navigate various hurdles, reports and requirements, Torres-Gies noted that so much of the difficulty comes from the nature of the virus itself.
“You kinda feel that you lost ‘you,’” Torres-Gies said. “You lost yourself … it takes away what we had before — more closeness. And the virus does that, any illness does that, you know, you’re kind of afraid of other people.”
From her perspective as a psychology major, Torres-Gies said the real emotional impacts of 2020 will never be forgotten.
”We are survivors,” she said, “because a lot of people died. We’re survivors right now, and we’re going to try to make a difference now.”
For the updated testing schedule at district locations, check here.
For information on assistance from the High Tech Center at City College, click here.