Back in March, people began trickling into Calvin University’s health center complaining of symptoms such as body aches and sore throats. The students and employees tested negative for the flu, leading campus officials to suspect they’d come down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
At the time, coronavirus tests were in short supply, leaving President Michael Le Roy disconcerted and frustrated. “It was a very, very sobering experience,” he said.
Deciding that access to reliable viral tests was integral to the school’s reopening plan and that he couldn’t wait for a solution from the government, Le Roy got to brainstorming how he could acquire kits for everyone slated to arrive on the Grand Rapids, Michigan, campus this fall. He consulted with Calvin’s biology and chemistry faculty, who suggested the school tap into the private sector.
In mid-May, the small Christian university announced it had partnered with Helix Diagnostics, a Michigan-based clinical laboratory, to secure 5,000 tests for the fall. Most will be used to screen its roughly 4,000 constituents, including nearly 3,600 students, upon their return to campus. The remaining kits will be kept in reserve for additional testing of individuals at greater risk of exposure to the virus, such as student-athletes and nurses in training. (Le Roy declined to disclose how much the school is paying for the tests.)
As of mid-June, two-thirds of the roughly 970 colleges tracked by The Chronicle of Higher Education were planning to resume in-person instruction come fall. But doing so will depend in part on institutions’ ability to conduct viral testing on at least a sample of their population, though some schools say they’re committed to screening everyone. Boston University, for example, stated in late May that it plans to independently test its 40,000 faculty, staff and students on a regular basis, charging an on-campus research lab with assessing the samples. The University of California, San Diego, plans to do something similar, “broadly” testing its campus members on a “recurring basis.”
Whether to test isn’t the question. It is inevitable that campus constituents will contract and expose others to the coronavirus, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA). The pandemic is expected to worsen, and the virus could crop up at some U.S. campuses as the country reopens its economy and racial-justice activists take to the streets.
Colleges should instead consider who needs to be tested and how frequently, said the epidemiologist Craig Roberts, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor emeritus and member of the ACHA’s COVID-19 task force. While Roberts is confident tests will be widely available come fall, some experts worry about shortages. Whether colleges have the resources to screen everyone on campus is also unclear, as is whether it’s worth doing so.