Swab, spit, stay home? College coronavirus testing plans are all over the map

Yousuf El-Jayyousi, a junior engineering student at the University of Missouri, wanted guidance and reassurance that it would be safe to go back to school for the fall semester. He tuned into a pair of online town halls organized by the university hoping to find that.

He did not.

What he got instead from those town halls last month was encouragement to return to class at the institution affectionately known as Mizzou. The university would be testing only people with symptoms, and at that point, the university said people who test positive off campus were under no obligation to inform the school.

“It feels like the university doesn’t really care whether we get sick or not,” said El-Jayyousi, who is scheduled for two in-person classes and lives at home with his parents and 90-year-old grandmother.

He’s seen the studies from researchers at Yale and Harvard that suggest testing needs to be much more widespread. He asked his instructors if he could join lectures remotely once classes begin Monday. One was considering it; the other rejected it.

“It was kind of very dismissive, like ‘so what?’” El-Jayyousi said.

But it’s an enormous “so what?” packed with fear and unknowns for Jayyousi and some 20 million other students enrolled in some level of post-secondary education in America.

Higher education has no clear guidance or set of standards to adhere to from the federal government or anywhere else. Policies for re-entry onto campuses that were abruptly shut in March are all over the map.

Hundreds undecided

According to the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, a project of Davidson College that monitors how higher ed is responding to the pandemic, there is nothing resembling a common approach. Of 2,958 institutions it follows, 151 were planning to open fully online, 729 were mostly online and 433 were taking a hybrid approach. Just 75 schools were insisting on students attending fully in person, and 614 were aiming to be primarily in-person. Some 800 others were still deciding, just weeks before instruction was to start.

The decisions often have little correlation with the public health advisories in the region. Mizzou, which is in an area with recent COVID spikes, is holding some in-person instruction and has nearly 7,000 students signed up to live in dorms and other university-owned housing. Harvard, in a region with extremely low rates of viral spread, has opted to go all online and allowed students to defer a year.

The specific circumstances colleges and universities face are as much determined by local fiscal and political dictates as by medicine and epidemiology. It is often unclear who is making the call. So it’s every-student-for-herself to chart these unknown waters, even as students (or their families) have written tuition checks for tens of thousands of dollars and signed leases for campus and off-campus housing.

And the risks — health, educational and financial — boomerang back on individual students: Two weeks after University of North Carolina students, as instructed, returned to the flagship campus in Chapel Hill with the promise of at least some in-person learning, all classes went online. Early outbreaks surged from a few students to more than 130 in a matter of days. Most undergrads had about a week to clear out of their dorms.

“It’s really tough,” said neuroscience major Luke Lawless, 20. “Chapel Hill is an amazing place, and as a senior it’s tough to know that my time’s running out — and the virus only adds to that.”

Location matters

C2i’s creator is Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of education at Davidson. Marsicano said the extreme diversity of approaches comes from the sheer diversity of schools, the penchant of many to follow the leads of more prestigious peers, and local politics.

Location matters a lot, Marsicano said, pointing to schools such as George Washington University and Boston University in urban settings where the environment is beyond the control of the school, versus a place such as the University of the South in remote, rural Sewanee, Tenn., where 90% of students will return to campus.

“It’s a lot easier to control an outbreak if you are a fairly isolated college campus than if you are in the middle of a city,” Marsicano said.

Student behavior is another wild card, Marsicano said, since even the best plans will fail if college kids “do something stupid, like have a massive frat party without masks.”

Another factor is a vacuum at the federal level. Although the Department of Education says Secretary Betsy DeVos has held dozens of calls with governors and state education superintendents, there’s no sign of an attempt to offer unified guidance to colleges beyond a webpage that links to relaxed regulatory requirements and fact sheets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who’s tested? When?

CDC guidance for higher education suggests there’s not enough data to know whether testing everyone is effective, but some influential researchers disagree.

“This virus is subject to silent spreading and asymptomatic spreading, and it’s very hard to play catch-up,” said Yale professor David Paltiel, who studies public health policy. “And so thinking that you can keep your campus safe by simply waiting until students develop symptoms before acting, I think, is a very dangerous game.”

He’s “painfully aware” that testing everyone on campus every few days sets a very high bar — logistically, financially, behaviorally — that may be beyond what most schools can reach. But he says the consequences of reopening campuses without those measures are severe, not just for students, but for vulnerable populations among school workers and in the surrounding community.

“You really have to ask yourself whether you have any business reopening if you’re not going to commit to an aggressive program of high-frequency testing,” he said.

The testing Illini

Some institutions that desperately want students to return to campus are backing the goal with a maximal approach to safety and testing.

About a four-hour drive east from Mizzou is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose sports teams are known as the Fighting Illini.

Large white tents with signs reading “Walk-Up COVID-19 Testing” have popped up across campus. Students take a simple saliva test.

The school plans to offer free tests to the 50,000 students expected to return this month, as well as some 11,000 faculty and staff members.

“The exciting thing is, because we can test up to 10,000 per day, it allows the scientists to do what’s really the best for trying to protect the community as opposed to having to cut corners, because of the limitations of the testing,” said University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke, who helped develop the campus’s saliva test, which received emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration this week.

The university will be testing students twice a week.

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