ORLANDO, Fla. — Students and parents have voiced mixed reactions to the University of Central Florida’s plans to randomly select students for COVID-19 testing, with some questioning the legality of mandatory testing and the penalties students who refuse will face.
Since the policy, which also applies to faculty and staff, was announced Sept. 15, a debate has raged on social media. Some think the testing is a valuable safeguard against outbreaks of infection, while others argue it will be intrusive and ineffective.
In Facebook group “UCF Parents,” one of the group’s roughly 11,700 members commented, “Great idea to test randomly. I appreciate that.” Said another: “Disciplinary action if a student refuses?!? What kind of communist country are we living in?”
Peggy Agner, whose son is a senior criminal justice major at UCF, argued in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel that testing can’t account for the potential of exposure students face any time they go to a public place, like a grocery store. Educating students on the importance of social distancing and wearing masks should be prioritized instead, she said.
“I think they need to pay attention to not allowing these crazy parties that we’re all seeing on the television,” Agner said. “These kids think they’re invincible.”
UCF senior Aisha Philippeaux said she’s in favor of testing — but concerned about students facing disciplinary action if they don’t comply.
“I feel like it’s in the student’s best interest and the school’s,” said Philippeaux, a clinical psychology major. “You can have COVID and be asymptomatic, so you think you’re fine and end up spreading it to other people.”
UCF is not alone in adopting this approach to containing the virus: Florida State University and the University of South Florida have also implemented random testing for students. All three schools warn that those who don’t comply may face disciplinary action.
“If we identify an unexpectedly high rate of cases through random testing, we will further review the situation and may conduct additional testing to help contain the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Michael Deichen, associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services, said in a statement.
UCF is paying for the tests, and students on campus this semester will be notified by email of their selection. Aventus Biolabs is facilitating the testing at an on-campus garage, Deichen said.
The random testing will be conducted every few weeks, and the results take an average of 48 hours to be reported, UCF spokeswoman Heather Smith said in an email. Some of the roughly 100 students did not report for testing last week, but Smith did not respond directly when asked if any will face disciplinary action.
“Students who did not get tested are being contacted by the COVID nurses to review their case and advise them they will need to quarantine,” she said.
UCF has had 611 reported COVID-19 cases through Sept. 26, dating back to Aug. 1. Smith said the positive random testing cases were included in last week’s tally, which had 41 student cases that weren’t self-reported.
The fall semester began Aug. 24, with fewer than a third of the university’s roughly 67,000 students enrolled in an in-person class. About 6,400 students live on campus, all of whom were tested upon arrival.
Barbara J. Evans, a law professor at the University of Florida with expertise in health law, said the state’s broad power to protect the public health through its agencies — including public universities — is “quite sweeping.”
“To protect the public health and safety, states can take measures that affect a person’s autonomy and individual liberties,” Evans said.
When these public health powers are challenged in court, Evans said, the lawfulness of requiring measures such as a quarantine for people with an infectious disease or vaccinations amid an epidemic are reviewed through a “rational basis” standard.
“Requiring random testing for COVID-19 during a COVID-19 pandemic certainly seems to have a rational basis,” Evans said.
In announcing the random testing program, Deichen said students from Greek organizations will be tested first, due to on-campus houses that have had recent outbreaks. According to the university and news reports, at least five Greek houses have been placed under quarantine.
“Specifically focusing on a single group is unacceptable,” UCF student government president Sabrina La Rosa, who is a member of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority, told the student news outlet Knight News.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, La Rosa said she could not speak on behalf of her sorority and only as student government president. The sorority’s on-campus house was one of the original three instructed to quarantine Sept. 5 and 6. Two more were later quarantined, according to WKMG-Channel 6: Delta Delta Delta sorority and Kappa Sigma fraternity
La Rosa said she does not live on campus.
“I believe the Greeks were the first chosen solely because of the few houses in quarantine and just making sure they’re keeping that community safe since they’re a large presence of housing population on campus,” she said.
Student government did not play a role in implementing the random testing, La Rosa said, and she urged students and parents who disagree with the new policy to voice concerns directly to the university.
According to Evans, rational basis for COVID-19 testing can also be applied to people living in communal living facilities, such as sorority and fraternity houses, if data shows a higher risk of these people contracting the disease.
Philippeaux, who is not a member of a sorority, said she felt UCF is sending mixed messages by targeting Greek life for the sake of student safety while also allowing students to attend football games.
UCF’s home stadium, known as the Bounce House, will be at 25% capacity, or 11,000 people, during games. About 3,000 student tickets will be distributed through a lottery process. The home opener is set for Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Fellow UCF senior Matthew Miller, a computer engineering major, noted that UCF had previously given priority to testing football players. Three tested positive in June for COVID-19 after a group of 60 players returned to campus for workouts.
“It’s nice to know that they’re including other people outside of just the people that bring them in money,” Miller said.
Miller said he has a friend in a fraternity who contracted COVID-19 after his brothers went to a local bar and brought back the virus to the frat house. He doesn’t think it’s unfair to focus testing on that section of the student body.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they confirm that a lot of them end up having it, wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Miller said.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)