Hardly a day goes by without a story in the news media on the unsettled state of higher education this fall. The importance of opening our campuses is not in dispute. The question is: Can we do it safely?
Colleges and universities are implementing an array of programs to answer that question affirmatively, limiting classrooms to half or a quarter of their capacity, investing in online education for hybrid teaching, banning athletic events and other large gatherings, re-engineering dining services and residence halls, and putting programs in place that test for the virus.
As public health experts have pointed out, however, these preventative measures do not all carry the same weight. One element looms over the others in importance: effective testing. Without it, campuses are blind, and the virus -- no matter what other steps are taken -- has a good chance of taking hold.
How do colleges and universities measure up on the all-important testing front? Most programs are woefully inadequate, the experts say, making moot the many other costly precautions they are putting in place. Comprehensive testing may appear too logistically challenging and financially infeasible for these institutions or they may not recognize its significance as the keystone of their safety programs.
Yet some institutions, including Colby College, Columbia University, Yale University and the University of Vermont, have overcome these barriers and put in place the kind of testing protocols that stand a good chance of keeping the coronavirus at bay.
How did they manage?
The testing program at the University of Vermont, developed in concert with public health and infectious disease experts on the faculty in our medical school, is one of the most comprehensive in the country. I hope that by enumerating its components -- and costs -- others can see that such extensive programs are more feasible than may be generally thought.
At the advice of our faculty, our testing program begins at the beginning, keeping sick students home and away from campus. In the coming weeks, we will test all of our returning 12,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students in their homes and require them to have a negative result before they set foot on campus. To assist in this effort, we have retained Vault Health, which has expertise in the delivery, retrieval and accurate cataloging of a variety of health tests. Rutgers University will process the tests and share the results with us.
Once they arrive, our program tests all on- and off-campus students, not just symptomatic ones. We know nearly half of all COVID-19 transmission comes from non-symptomatic carriers; testing only those with symptoms -- as many colleges will do -- is no way to stop the spread of the virus. The Broad Institute, affiliated with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will assist us in this effort and expects to return test results within 24 hours.
Testing at our university will be frequent and free for users, so there are no cost barriers. Since it takes about a week for the virus to take hold in the body, we will test all 12,000 students when they arrive on campus and once a week thereafter -- a rate recommended by our medical school faculty -- for five weeks and then at a frequency dictated by the data generated by earlier tests.
And we have provisioned space for students who test positive, so they can be placed in supportive isolation.
All employees working on campus can also access our testing free of charge.
The testing program is not inexpensive, but we believe we must not hesitate to spend on this critical enabler of safe fall operations. We estimate that it will cost the university $8 to $10 million over just the fall semester. (All told, the COVID-induced financial impact for the year could exceed $60 million at our institution.)
Why? We view the cost of testing as an investment, and measure ROI both educationally, in the quality of the experience we'll be able to offer students, and financially, as more students are persuaded to persist this fall in a safe on-campus setting. In simple cost-benefit terms, it is money well spent.
Even with an effective testing program, not all colleges or universities will be able to welcome students back to campus. For those in densely populated cities in areas of the country where the virus is surging, an online semester may indeed be the only safe option. And some institutions will be unable to afford the expense, given already precarious finances across higher ed.
But for many others, an ambitious, science-based testing program just could make possible the experience we all desire: a full semester of rich on-campus learning. Without it, even the most well-intentioned efforts are destined to fail.