At UNH, missing COVID tests can result in eviction, mark on permanent record

  • Test kit instructions shared by the University of New Hampshire. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 12/12/2020 5:52:32 PM

Backlit by her childhood bedroom, Carolyn Dixon logged onto Zoom to await a ruling on four missing COVID-19 tests.

Just a few weeks before final exams, Dixon received an email informing her she was being evicted from her dorm at the University of New Hampshire, where she was finishing her first semester, for failing to comply with the university’s testing guidelines.

The news came as a shock to Dixon and all of her close friends at school, who ardently insisted she never missed a test deadline.

“She actually reminds me to turn my tests in half the time,” one of her friends said.

Dixon built a routine around her assigned test drop times. On Wednesdays, she dropped her tests off on the way to her morning biology lab, and on Saturdays she dropped her test off with her roommate after they ate brunch together. There was no way she missed one test, nevertheless four, she said.

Her Wildcat Pass, a virtual program that tells students if they’re in compliance with UNH coronavirus guidelines, was valid when she checked it once a week. When she left school a week early for Thanksgiving break, she had exactly two leftover tests. Hadley Townsend, her roommate, said not only did Dixon always turn in her tests but she often offered to turn in Townsend’s tests, too.

She thought if she just explained that there was a misunderstanding, that she was absolutely sure she turned every test in, the university would dismiss her case.

On the Zoom hearing, three university employees – a procedural advisor, a hearing officer, and a complainant – convened to decide whether or not Dixon was at fault for the missing COVID-19 tests. The hearing was broken into four sections: 10 minutes for the complainant to explain the charges, 10 minutes for Dixon to read a defense, and two periods of cross-questioning from the hearing officer, one of the adults explained.

“It was sheer panic mostly,” Dixon said. “I was not expecting to go into a full hearing like that.”

Dixon didn’t have any concrete evidence to show them nor did she prepare a statement to read. She didn’t know she had to.

“I’m Carolyn Dixon,” she paused, unsure of how to introduce herself. “I’m here as a student... on trial?”

“The respondent,” the procedural advisor corrected.

The meeting felt like a trial to Dixon, though.

After she explained her side of the story, she was met with a smattering of questions from the hearing officer: do you remember dropping your test off on October 28th? Why do you think the system would miss four tests? Were you checking your Wildcat Pass? Did you pick up all of your testing kits?

When the cameras shut off, Dixon let out an exasperated sigh and laughed in disbelief to her dad, who was standing just out of frame.

“They’re treating me like I murdered someone!” she said. “Should I call my lawyer?”

Early in the pandemic, UNH committed to a rigorous testing regimen that required buy-in from tens of thousands of students.

To stay on campus, students were required to drop-off COVID-19 tests twice a week. A failure to do so could result in eviction, a ban from in-person classes, and a strike on the student’s permanent record. Sixty-seven students have been involuntarily evicted from campus housing, said Erika Mantz, a spokesperson for the university.

The possibility of a strike on her record terrified Dixon. A strike could disqualify her from scholarships and studying abroad, which she dreamed of doing since she enrolled in the university.

Dixon felt like she had no way of proving she turned in her tests. The small metal boxes students dropped their swabs into didn’t have any mechanism to track who turned their test in.

“It’s my word, a teenager, against all these adults,” she said. “No one’s going to believe me so the only thing I could say was ‘that’s incorrect’ and they’re like ‘yeah, okay.’ ”

Dixon requested to go through hours of security camera footage to prove she had dropped off the test. She offered to bring her friends to testify on her behalf. The university did not respond to either of her requests.

“If I had known that I had to defend myself for doing what the school asked me to do, I would have taken pictures of me handing all my COVID tests in with dates and times,” she told them. “But I just did what the school told me to.”

The future of her academic record, study abroad opportunities, and scholarship award were in the hands of the testing system.

Dixon’s hearing officer ultimately found her guilty. The officer said she just didn’t think it was likely the testing lab would incorrectly label her tests as missing four separate times.

Except to Dixon, it seemed entirely likely that the lab missed four tests. She had heard stories around campus of lost tests and glitchy testing software.

Once, Sam Resende, one of her friends at UNH, was sent to the quarantine dorm after getting an inconclusive test result back. He waited hours to get the results back from a new COVID test only to have a woman call to say the lab could not find his sample. After another day in quarantine and an angry call from Resende’s mother, they found the test and released him and all of his close contacts, including Dixon, from COVID dorms.

Resende said he is certain Dixon’s missing tests were a lab error.

“I think every one of us in our friend group has had an instance where the lab has not gotten our test back,” he said.

Townsend, Dixon’s roommate, said there were multiple instances when she had to email university officials to correct her Wildcat Pass, which incorrectly reported she was in violation of the school’s COVID protocols.

“Obviously they’re doing the best they can,” Townsend said. “But they have made mistakes so I wouldn’t put it past them to not have logged a couple of her tests.”

In a letter from the university’s testing compliance group, they said testing data before Oct. 10 “can be a little noisy as we were dealing with a few technical issues resulting from bugs in the software.” However, they said those technical issues had since been addressed. They also acknowledged in the letter that it was “theoretically possible” that a sample could be lost in transportation from the dropbox to the testing site but said they had not had any reports of that kind of mishap.

“There have been some hiccups with the software system but those have been quickly resolved and we are committed to working with every student with concerns about their testing record,” said Mantz, the university spokesperson.

Dixon decided to appeal her ruling.

Slowly, the charges against her began to change. The four missing tests in question became two missing tests. The other tests were dismissed because of labeling issues: “part her fault, part ours,” the letter to Dixon read.

Dixon will attend a second hearing on Monday to discuss the new evidence.

“She’s been at school eight weeks,” Christine Dixon, Carolyn’s mother, said. “These kids are paranoid as it is. Let’s not punish the kids and put something on their permanent record.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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