Other Duties as Assigned: My Experience as a COVID Test Observer

We all will certainly have very distinct memories of life during COVID that will last a lifetime. There are many experiences from the last several months in my personal and professional life that I know will stick with me—including my newfound responsibility as a COVID test observer. 

Let me back up a bit: one of our surveillance testing protocols is collecting wastewater samples in the dorms, apartments, and other buildings as an early detection for COVID. If you think your job has been tough, be grateful you're not the person who has to collect or process those samples. When we receive a “hit” (which can either mean a positive case or unclear findings), we test everyone from the building at which the hit occurred, including students living and staff working there.  

One Friday (after waking up to missed calls and texts from my boss from midnight the night before and panicking that we were closing), we had a hit from that week’s test. An entire residence hall was to be tested that day. With a light schedule that particular Friday, I offered my services. I was called in for traffic control, but before I knew it, they had me suited up in full PPE and trained to observe the self-administered tests. 

This is truly the most “other duties as assigned” task that I have ever been given. It has been fascinating, kind of fun, eye opening and gross. While not directly related to our work with parents, I wanted to share with you all an insider perspective into what these days are like. 

Students learn that they have to take COVID tests through text and email…except those who don’t respond quickly enough and get a knock on the door. They must report to the testing site, check in, and proceed to an intimidating-looking room full of staff in full PPE. Not counting any wait time to check in, the entire process takes about 10 minutes. 


  • It’s easy! And pretty fun! It’s nice to feel helpful and have a hands-on task, especially these days when the majority of our work is at a computer.

  • You should not volunteer for this particular task if you are at all squeamish about snot…you will see a lot of it.

  • Ok let’s be honest—you’ll see more than snot. And there are some things you can’t unsee…

  • It’s hot. Being covered head to toe in plastic is not particularly comfortable. The plastic gowns are giant and the face shields dig into your head and hurt after a while. I have a newfound respect for surgeons who have to wear it for hours. 

  • Your friends and colleagues will laugh when they first see you in the getup. Because you will look fairly ridiculous. 

  • You have to observe up to three students testing at a time. It can feel like juggling, especially when they are all completing the steps at a different pace. 

  • College students aren’t great at following directions (shocking!) Yes, they are nervous and confused…but it’s mind blowing that “please stand here” can have so many interpretations. 

The script: 

Ok there isn’t a set script, but after observing dozens of tests, you start to feel like a broken record. And each test observer gets into their own rhythm and has their own spiel. Mine typically goes something like this: 

“Come on up! You can put your tube in this box. Ok move over a little bit—we’re testing three people at once so make room. You’re in the middle. No, the middle. Right here. There you go. And you’re on the end. Yep. Good. Tube in the box. That box. THAT box. Good.” 

“Alright. Step one is to blow your nose, so go ahead and lower your mask to your chin and grab a tissue.” Blank stares. “Ok there are tissues in front of each of you so go ahead. Yes, you can take down your mask to blow your nose.” Students look to one another for cues on how to blow their noses.

Students try to hand me their used tissues. “Nope. I don’t want that. There are trash cans right in front of you.”

“Great. Now if you can clean your hands for me.” More blank stares until I point out the massive containers of hand sanitizer.

“Ok now grab your tube. No that’s your swab—grab your tube and pull the cap off. You can keep it in the box so it’s ready for your swab when you’re done. Pull. Just pull.” Make an air pulling motion. “You don’t have to twist the cap. Pull. Pu…ok there you go.”

“Here are your swabs. For the test, I need you to give me three big circles with the swab in each nostril. You don’t need to go deep, just go nice and wide with your circles.” More blank stares as I mime making big circles with the swab. “Your swabs are right in front of you. Go ahead.” 

Variations of what happens next:

“Yes, you can start.”

“Yes, both nostrils please.”

“Not deep—just right inside.”

“Ok that’s more of a twist—give me a big circle please.” 

“Did you do both nostrils?”

“Wait—you’re cringing. It shouldn’t hurt. If it hurts, you’re going up too far.”

“Are you ok? You look a little ill.”

“Did you do both nostrils?”

“See it’s not so bad, right?”

“Tell your friends it doesn’t hurt so they won’t be afraid if they get called in.” 

“Great! When you’ve done both sides go ahead and put the swab fuzzy side down into your tube and cap it back up. No fuzzy side down. Fuzzy side…there you go.” 

“Now clean your hands one more time and you’ll get your wristband and be on your way! Please exit out the back.” 


The most interesting experience I’ve had so far is when one student—a slightly awkward young man—was completing step one (blow your nose) when he looked at me and said, “I’m sorry—I’m not very good at blowing my own nose.” Keeping a straight face, I told him it was fine while SCREAMING inside: “You are in college! Do you mean to tell me your parents still help you blow your nose??” I never thought I’d have to add “teach your kid to blow their own nose” to my list of summer to-dos I share in my Family Orientation Newsletters. My cringing threatened to go external as this student lifted his chin and asked me to look up his nostrils to see if he did a good enough job blowing. Like I said above, there are some things you can’t unsee.

Despite a few awkward situations, I am so proud of our students. They are compliant, friendly through their nerves, and happy to do their part in keeping RIT safe. In all my times observing, I’ve only interacted with one rude student, who was upset about waking up to a knock on his door (note: it was noon. I know college students like to sleep but come on).

I have acquired new skills during this opportunity—some more valuable than others:

  • Putting the face shield on in a way that I don’t lose too much hair in the rubber band.

  • Keeping a straight face when something funny or awkward happens (easier with a mask).

  • Texting in gloves between rushes. 

  • Knowing exactly when to look away from test in order to miss the part when they pull the swab from their nose.

  • Patience as I repeat instructions over and over again.

  • Putting on paper wristbands without getting it stuck to their arm hair.

  • Putting on paper wristbands without getting it stuck to their arm hair while wearing latex gloves.

I’m very proud to be a member of the RIT community right now. I’m impressed by the steps taken to open and keep our students, staff, and faculty safe. Being able to contribute by being a test observer feels like I’m doing my part and I’m happy to help…no matter how odd of task it is for a Parent & Family Programs professional!

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