Like many members of faculty and staff across the 5Cs, Pomona College associate professor of English Colleen Rosenfeld, has a child attending one of Claremont Unified School District’s seven elementary schools.
When her family was exposed to COVID-19 this January and the testing site of her primary health insurance company was overwhelmed, she felt “it was really important at that moment that the school district had testing available,” which it did at the time.
But as of mid-March this service has been terminated, part of a cessation of federal support for free testing programs which echoes the decline of free testing services in the greater Los Angeles County area.
“We received word this evening from our COVID testing vendor that the federal funding being used to provide no-cost COVID tests has ended and they will no longer be able to process free tests as of tomorrow,” parents were told in a March 17 email.
Previously, CUSD students and their family members could obtain a free COVID-19 test at three CUSD schools testing centers or Taylor Hall, a community conference and meeting space.
As testing options have become increasingly more scarce, the challenge has only accumulated.
“As a working parent during the pandemic, you always need multiple sources for testing,” Rosenfeld said.
For her, the stress built up when multiple sources started to disappear and she realized she only had a few backup testing services.
“The problem is not in losing one source of testing,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s like a coordination problem when everybody starts to withdraw — Pomona is not available anymore, the school district is not available anymore, [and if my healthcare company gets overwhelmed as well] — and that is when I feel like the storm begins to merge a little.”
Pomona’s testing service for faculty and staff, Hamilton Health Box, is no longer able to provide tests for faculty or staff members’ families, nor is Scripps College’s provider HITL.
When Pomona provided testing access for faculty and staff family members the service came with a fee of $75, according to its COVID-19 FAQ.
Pitzer College staff and faculty families can test through the college’s clinic, according to Nurse Zephyr Dowd-Lukesh. Claremont McKenna College has “temporarily suspended” testing for family members of faculty and staff, according to the CMC Returns faculty FAQ page. Harvey Mudd College currently offers testing to faculty and staff and the families of those who live on campus, but not family members of faculty living off campus, HMC spokesperson Judy Augsburger said in an email.
Rosenfeld said she was told that Pomona reduced its testing capacity for family members in anticipation of the spring semester, when the returning student population was expected to put a strain on the testing and laboratory system.
In response to the federal funding cuts, CUSD superintendent Jeff Wilson advised students to seek other options for testing if exposed to the virus.
In a March 18 email, Wilson recommended that students test through their own health care provider if exposed to COVID-19, or obtain an at-home rapid test from their school. Though students won’t be charged for these tests, Wilson noted in the email that they are quite expensive for the schools to obtain, and therefore encouraged families to avoid asking for them.
Families can still request some free at-home tests through the federal government.
However, some 5C faculty who spoke with TSL expressed concern over the relatively high false negative rate of at-home tests.
As a parent of students attending a CUSD school, Scripps College professor Sumita Pahwa voiced her concerns with the federal government’s decision to reduce financial support for testing.
“Just in time for the fourth wave, we received notification that our school district’s free Covid testing program – which allowed students to quickly test/get back in class following exposure – has been canceled as federal funding for it was taken away,” Pahwa said in a March 16 tweet. “For shame, @POTUS.”
For Pahwa, the testing program had been working well. Before cuts to the testing program were made, Pahwa said students had been required to get tested if exposed to the virus, or if symptoms arose, and would not return to in-person classes until they received a negative result.
Additionally, cold-like symptoms or fevers also called for a necessary negative test result before students could return. The free testing program helped alleviate the cost burden of the mandate.
“[While] most faculty are lucky to have some financial stability and flexibility to [get a PCR test], about a third of the families in Claremont schools are, by CA standards, low income, and they may not have those benefits,” Pahwa said in an email.
Drawing on her political science background, Pahwa added that administrative burden coupled with transaction costs might make some families without benefits or assistance more inclined to seek out a rapid test instead of a PCR test.
Missing a day or two of in-person work in order to stay home with a child, given the time lag that comes with PCR tests, could be a significant loss or time restraint for many.
“I think this is a great failure from the government — if you leave it up to individuals to do what’s best for public health, chances are that they won’t,” Pahwa said. “Certainly not without paid sick leave or without good options for what to do with a child who is home sick, if it means potentially losing your own income.”
This prompted Pahwa’s decision to tweet about the issue and tag President Biden’s account, calling him to reinstate federal support for testing accessibility.
“There is no ‘back to normal’ or anything approaching it without support and mitigation measures,” Pahwa said.
The program’s suspension at CUSD could have repercussions beyond the classroom. Rosenfeld said there may be a decrease in the number of people who will get tested, given that access to free tests has been reduced.
“I feel like one thing we’ve learned through [the pandemic] is like, the easier you make it for people to get vaccinated, to get tested, etc., the more likely they are to do it,” Rosenfeld added.
Pomona philosophy professor Peter Thielke said in an email that although he didn’t take advantage of the testing offered by CUSD, “it’s disappointing that the testing program has been halted,” adding that “it provided a very helpful resource for the whole community, and not just CUSD students.”
As a parent of two children attending schools in CUSD, Pomona math professor Johanna Hardin felt people in the community were taking the virus less seriously.
“And that has to do with a lot of things,” Hardin added, “including the fact that we don’t have free access to testing or that the free access to testing is being taken away in a whole variety of ways.”
Hardin feels like the decision is not entirely a political one. She pointed out that maintaining a free testing system occupies a considerable money flow for the community and “it’s more cost saving mechanism and [a reflection that] people are feeling different about the disease.”
Free COVID-19 drive-through tests of different types including PCR and Rapid NAAT tests are currently available through private providers such as CVS and Walgreens in Claremont. Most sites require appointments and tests may be limited to patients who show COVID-19 related symptoms and have previous exposures.