Colleges race to create ‘a new sense of normalcy.’ Will new rules, COVID-19 testing be enough?

SAN DIEGO – When students arrive at the University of California-San Diego in August, they will find coronavirus testing stations strategically planted throughout campus.

To determine whether they’ve been infected, they’ll take a swab, dab it with nasal slime and leave the sample in a collection box. Bar codes with the packets will be linked to their personal medical records and cellphone numbers.

Within a day, students can expect results via text message. For those who test positive, a huge response system includes medical care, isolation and contact tracing.

Robert Schooley, chief of the infectious diseases division at UC San Diego Health, said the reopening plan, dubbed Return to Learn, has multiple scenarios for campus life, and surveillance results will dictate which one administrators deploy. Researchers will even pull manhole covers to check campus sewage for coronavirus levels.

“We want to be able to adjust what we do to what is happening,” Schooley said. “We’ll have a continuous, very broad vision of what’s going on with our testing. And we believe information is a good way to make decisions.” 

Marina Bruce, an assistant director of admissions at the University of California-San Diego, takes her dogs for a walk amid signs outlining COVID-19 precautions.
Marina Bruce, an assistant director of admissions at the University of California-San Diego, takes her dogs for a walk amid signs outlining COVID-19 precautions.

That’s the new paradigm at one of America’s roughly 4,300 colleges and universities, where administrators are anxiously pushing to resume classes this fall in the face of an unpredictable pandemic.

An early vaccine could dramatically ease their stress. A resurgence of infections – possibly coupled with a flu outbreak – would do the opposite.

School presidents bet on a smorgasbord of viral testing systems and a completely rejiggered academic format. Nearly all universities tout hybrid teaching – a mix of online and in-person classes – and strict guidelines for social distancing and masks.

There is resistance from some faculty, health experts and others who fear testing programs are inadequate and a college party culture could wipe out even the best safeguards.  

“This is all terra incognita,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the American Council on Education. “They don’t teach this in college presidents’ school. … Every school is taking steps they couldn’t have imagined a year ago.” 

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Virtual dissections, a safety pledge and testing, testing, testing

American colleges and universities offer petri-dish conditions for the coronavirus: Thousands of people from around the globe converge to live, study, eat, work and play in crowded quarters where lofty intellectualism intertwines with partying. 

Though youthfulness may reduce the peril of COVID-19, it is no shield against infection and transmission. YouTube is peppered with videos of college-age Americans ignoring public health guidance at bars, pool parties and other venues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said young people are driving a surge of cases in the South and West.

Last week, the CDC pooh-poohed plans to test all students and employees returning to campuses, saying the benefits are unknown. “Therefore, CDC does not recommend entry testing of all returning students, faculty, and staff.” 

UCSD and others disagree. Cornell University President Martha Pollack co-wrote a Wall Street Journal column arguing the school has a better chance of containing the virus by offering in-person classes and comprehensive testing.

“For many universities, closing the campus to undergraduates is probably not the safest option – notwithstanding concerns that college students may not adhere to public-health guidelines,” she wrote. “That’s because at many colleges, students will gather on and around campuses whether classes are held in person or online.”

To some extent, universities’ differing approaches for the fall are a matter of spin.

The entire California State University system announced that most in-person classes will shut down amid a switch to remote learning. Other colleges are reopening – though mostly via online courses.

Either way, schools have a variety of plans to cope with COVID-19.

The University of Alabama has a color-coded system – green, yellow, orange, red – ranging from fully open to extreme limits on access.

Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania has a virtual dissection option for anatomy classes. The school obtained two 8-foot video tables containing 3D bodies that can be cut with finger touches, making remote access available. 

Calvin University in Michigan cut a deal with a commercial lab for discounted coronavirus testing.

Boston University is setting up swab-testing for students and faculty. Catherine Klapperich, director of the Laboratory for Diagnostics and Global Healthcare Technologies, relies on 17 years of research to guide a reopening for 35,000 students.

“Our plan now is that anyone who wants testing will have it available in the fall,” Klapperich said. “At this time, it’s a voluntary program. That may change.”

Students and employees at Purdue University will be required to sign a pledge of safety and accountability. President Mitch Daniels vowed to fully reopen the campus and launched a crowdfunding effort to pay for safety supplies – including a mile of plexiglass.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a survey of 7,000 Purdue faculty, staff and graduate students found that 62% say they would feel at least somewhat unsafe teaching this fall, and 92% lack confidence that students will socially distance outside the classroom.

In an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, philosophy professors Irina Mikhalevich and Russell Powell contend the “rush to reopen” without a vaccine values finances over public health.

“Many universities are not facing the biological and moral reality of this once-in-a-century pandemic, nor are they recognizing the limits of our current medical technology,” they wrote. “Magical thinking rarely gives rise to ethically sound or prudent policy.”

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Higher education anxiety

For nearly 20 million college and university students, as well as parents and faculty, the uncertainty can be overwhelming: Will campus housing be safe? Is the cafeteria open? Should students postpone studies and just stay home?

Consider the plight of Simona Capisani, who earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California-Irvine. She is scheduled to begin a research fellowship at Harvard University in September, teaches community college classes on the side and lives with her partner in graduate student housing at UCSD. 

Simona Capisani earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California-Irvine. She's supposed to begin a fellowship at Harvard University in September, but she doesn't know whether she'll relocate to Massachusetts or work remotely from California.
Simona Capisani earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California-Irvine. She’s supposed to begin a fellowship at Harvard University in September, but she doesn’t know whether she’ll relocate to Massachusetts or work remotely from California.

Capisani said her life is on hold as she awaits word on whether to relocate to Massachusetts or work remotely from California. 

On a more profound level, she said, COVID-19 imposes awful choices for higher education: Resuming regular classes risks public health, but virtual instruction may weaken the educational product and jeopardize a school’s financial future.

“All these institutions are in an impossible situation,” Capisani said. “To give them the benefit of the doubt, they’re buying time to see what happens. But it’s putting incredible stress on students and faculties.”

Schools, which scrambled to cope with coronavirus in March, are racing to create what the American Council on Education calls “a new sense of normalcy.”  

In a survey conducted by the council in May, 90% of college and university leaders who responded said they are likely to resume in-person classes in the fall.

To achieve that goal, most administrators have turned to academia’s specialty: brainstorming. Just about every university has publicized blue-ribbon studies, guidelines and reopening plans with grandiose names. 

Though there is no uniform standard for testing, housing, quarantines or other precautions, the plans share some principles.

Most university coronavirus plans declare that the health of students and employees is the No. 1 concern. All spell out some level of testing. All recommend, encourage or require masks and social distancing. 

The majority emphasize online studies except for labs and classes that must be done in person. Many schools cut their fall breaks, added night classes and reduced classroom sizes.

Those with intercollegiate athletic programs are in a dither figuring out what will happen to NCAA games, especially football, which is key to the identify of many universities and finances other sports at the largest schools. 

The crippling grip the coronavirus pandemic has had on the sports world has forced universities, leagues and franchises to evaluate how they might someday welcome back fans to stadiums such as North Carolina's Kenan Stadium.
The crippling grip the coronavirus pandemic has had on the sports world has forced universities, leagues and franchises to evaluate how they might someday welcome back fans to stadiums such as North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium.

Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at New York University, scoffed at the CDC’s recommendation against comprehensive testing and said the agency provided “neither logic nor evidence to support its unyielding resistance.”

Universities have the potential to be incubators for COVID-19, he said, but they can also be leaders in combating it. The key, he said, is requiring testing for anyone on campus and isolating those who are infected. For those unwilling, Romer said, the message should be clear: “You are not welcome on campus.”

Many university plans don’t go that far.

Practically every aspect of campus life to change

The American College Health Association developed a blueprint that suggests the herculean task touches nearly every aspect of campus life.

Student housing must be realigned, often eliminating shared rooms and establishing backup dorms for those who are infected or under quarantine. Faculty and staff need personal protective equipment. Janitorial services must staff up to meet new cleaning protocols. Computer systems need more power and security for massive online offerings.

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Each change creates collateral problems. Cafeterias, for example, will have to eliminate long queues and reconfigure serving and dining areas – if they remain open. The health association urges daily temperature checks for staff, regular deep cleaning, enforcement of occupancy limits and strict social distancing. 

Most of those changes are expensive, and they are hitting as school budgets bleed red from drops in enrollment, government funding and donations. 

Hartle said he does not know of any institution that plans to resume operations this fall without major changes.

Liberty University, an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia, was an outlier this year, when President Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomed more than 15,000 residential students back after spring break.

That prompted a backlash from students and faculty. Falwell reconsidered after Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 100 people.

Falwell declared on May 8 that Liberty’s “crisis response plan” for COVID-19 should be “a model for other institutions to follow in the future.” 

Scott Lamb, the university’s senior vice president for communication, would not directly address whether that plan includes comprehensive testing for coronavirus. Nor would he spell out Liberty’s intentions this fall, saying, “That’s to be determined and announced.”

At Calvin University, a small Christian school in Michigan, President Michael Le Roy said he started researching a testing program in March. A chemistry professor referred him to a laboratory, which directed him to a company called Helix Diagnostics.

The result, Le Roy said, was a partnership: Calvin will receive thousands of coronavirus tests at a preferred rate while Helix gets publicity. 

Le Roy said Calvin helped develop a COVID-19  guide published by Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities. The pandemic reopening playbook boils down to testing, masks and social distancing.

“If you want to come on campus, this is what you have to do,” Le Roy said. Asked about enforcement, he noted there are no walls around campus. 

Nearly all college reopening plans stress that the uncertainty of the pandemic requires flexibility to expand or contract operations.

University of Arizona President Robert Robbins, a physician, got his blood drawn for testing in late April as he announced the Tucson campus would fully reopen Aug. 24. As coronavirus spreads rapidly in Arizona, Robbins is having second thoughts. During a briefing in late June, he said, “If I had to say today, would we open? No.”

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Coping with the ‘great uncertainty’

At UCSD’s sprawling campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the “Return to Learn” plan acknowledges “great uncertainty” about the fall quarter: “It is an uncomfortable feeling for many of us, requiring enormous flexibility, patience, resilience and grace.”

Signs urging students to be responsible about COVID-19 are spaced along walkways. Nearly every building entrance features a similar poster, and the university website contains a maze of rules.

Students are expected to screen themselves for symptoms every day and get tested for the coronavirus occasionally. Those arriving from overseas will face a 14-day quarantine. Classroom lectures will be limited to 50 students or one-half capacity, whichever is smaller.

Cooper Lachenbruch, left, a soccer player at the University of California-San Diego, works out with teammate Cory Dailey while contemplating a "new normalcy" in higher education.
Cooper Lachenbruch, left, a soccer player at the University of California-San Diego, works out with teammate Cory Dailey while contemplating a “new normalcy” in higher education.

Under the hybrid instructional system, about 30% of UCSD’s 4,750 fall courses will be offered in classrooms. Nearly all will be streamed live online.

On campus turf that is a pristine green from lack of use, sophomore Cooper Lachenbruch dribbled a soccer ball and mulled the idea of online courses. They seem like “a lesser learning experience,” he said, but an understandable fallback.

Lachenbruch said his academic angst is compounded by disappointment that the 2020 soccer season appears to be slipping away. UCSD should be OK, he said, because it’s not a party school and serious students will look out for one another: “Everyone realizes safety is more important than what you might want to do as an individual.”

Hartle, with the American Council on Education, said behavior may be the most important dynamic – and the biggest unknown – as campuses begin to reopen next month. 

“At the end of the day,” he said, “a lot of it is going to depend on young people showing discretion and good sense.” 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID testing: Colleges race to make campus safe, reopen this fall

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