Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For In-Person College, Coronavirus Testing Will Be Key. But Is That Feasible?


What will college look like in the fall? Students want to know. Parents and faculty want to know. There are still a lot of questions. The CDC has offered recommendations for reopening, and we're starting to get a sense of what some colleges are planning. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education. She's been following this one. Hi, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

KING: So what did the CDC recommend that colleges do?

NADWORNY: So the CDC guidelines this week offered a number of ways that colleges could help reduce the spread - so closing dining halls, students wearing masks as much as possible, faculty and staff teleworking. They said the lowest risk is going to be online classes. The highest risk are those regular in-person classes, campus events and shared dorms. Look, everybody wants to be on campus in the fall.

KING: Yeah.

NADWORNY: Students want to be on campus. Three in four say they want in-person classes. And so we've seen a lot of colleges announce that they're going to plan to be in person. But what we haven't seen is a plan for if there's an outbreak. So models indicate campuses are going to be ripe for that. We know that faculty and staff are in that older, more at-risk category in terms of age, and colleges are worried about liability. What happens if there's an outbreak on campus?

KING: This week, we saw some colleges - and I'm thinking of Notre Dame here - say that they're going to start the fall semester earlier than normal, and then they're going to end the semester before the Thanksgiving holiday. What is the thinking behind that move?

NADWORNY: That's right. The University of Notre Dame and some other colleges have announced they'll be starting the fall semester earlier and ending before Thanksgiving. It's essentially trying to sneak in a semester before a potential second wave in the late fall. The plan also eliminates the fall break so it cuts down on students' travel. That was a CDC recommendation. But Notre Dame's plan also includes a possible delayed start, and professors are prepping for online classes too - so lots of options here.

KING: If colleges are going to have in-person classes, there are some essential things that they will need to consider. I know you've been looking into a list of what has to get done. What do colleges need to do?

NADWORNY: So experts say if campuses are open, there will be contact tracing, social distancing and a big part will be coronavirus testing.

CELESTA TAURUS: The process itself was about five minutes.

NADWORNY: Last week, Celesta Taurus (ph), a student at the University of California, San Diego, took a coronavirus test on campus. The nose swab wasn't as bad as they'd heard. But...

TAURUS: I did cry a little bit just because it's, I guess, a natural reaction.

NADWORNY: Taurus didn't have symptoms and ended up testing negative. They're part of a random mass testing project by the university aimed at helping the campus be in person in the fall.

ROBERT SCHOOLEY: We're not trying to test to see if we can detect an outbreak right now. We're trying to make sure that we can scale to be able to do that in the fall.

NADWORNY: That's Dr. Robert Schooley, a virologist who's leading the effort at UC San Diego. The idea is to get enough students to participate so they can use modeling to spot an outbreak before it happens - sort of an early warning system. By testing the students currently on campus, they can see if it works and figure out the bottlenecks.

One lesson they've learned is about students' motivation to participate. At first, the message was aren't you curious? Come see if you're shedding the virus. Not many students showed up. But by day three, they changed to come get tested - it'll help us be in person in the fall. Students came in droves.

SCHOOLEY: If we can't get the universities going, it's going to be very hard to get the rest of society going.

NADWORNY: In the fall, Schooley envisions having to test about 70% of the community - that's students, faculty and staff - about once a month. That's a lot of tests. UC San Diego is able to do it because they've got a world-renowned lab, a hospital and a procurement office so they're not experiencing test shortages that other communities are. But even if colleges can get their hands on tests, they cost a lot - anywhere from $50 a test to triple that. At UC San Diego, even with so much in house, the project is anticipated to cost more than $2 million per month in the fall. It's not possible for all colleges, but for some, that investment may prove essential.

MICHAEL LE ROY: We pay for all kinds of insurances, and in many ways, this is a similar kind of cost.

NADWORNY: Michael Le Roy is the president of Calvin University in western Michigan. They're a small Christian college, and they're planning to be in person in the fall. They're working on details now. They know they're going to need social distancing and thinner dorms and classes, but before they solidify all that, Le Roy says he had to get his hands on some tests.

LE ROY: No matter how you think about it, testing - that was going to be critical to everything else. So if we couldn't do that, almost everything else was going to be impossible.

NADWORNY: Through connections in the Chemistry Department, Le Roy made a deal with a commercial lab named Helix Diagnostics. The company, for an undisclosed amount of money, will provide 5,000 coronavirus tests for students at Calvin. That's a deal Le Roy never expected to make as a college president.

LE ROY: You feel a little bit like you're in the great beyond. And so you get one thing like this in place and you're like, OK, now the next thing.

NADWORNY: Because he says purchasing the tests is just the beginning. There are still so many problems to solve. Where will they test? How often will they test? What will they do if a student refuses? And of course, there need to be plans and physical spaces for when students test positive.

KING: Elissa, one upside to this is that it is still only May, so there's a couple months to figure things out.

NADWORNY: Absolutely. There is still so much unknown for colleges. Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education described to me what it's like right now for colleges to make plans.

TERRY HARTLE: They're doing it in an atmosphere of enormous ambiguity. It's like the fog is so thick, you can't see the corner of your street.

NADWORNY: So given that, we have to take all of these announcements, these plans, with a bit of skepticism. Colleges need students. They need tuition. And while these plans are important to have, there is no guarantee that they'll be the plans colleges actually enact come August.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny on the uncertainty of opening colleges in the fall. Elissa, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.