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10 Lessons for Colleges on COVID Testing

Experience from the fall 2020 semester suggests that fast, frequent testing can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in a large and diverse university community, but that's just one element in a full mitigation plan. Besides testing, schools need to be ready to isolate and care for those who test positive, do effective contact tracing, promote mask usage and physical distancing and engage with the local public health agency.

A new "rapid expert consultation" on COVID-19 testing from the National Academies explores these strategies and others, to help college leaders prepare for the spring 2021 semester, which begins at many schools after the winter break. As researchers pointed out in "COVID-19 Testing Strategies for Colleges and Universities," a number of factors come into play as campus leaders are making COVID decisions.

For example, new test types are coming out every week. Currently, there are more than 200 diagnostic tests that have been approved by under the Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization. Even after a vaccine is available, testing will still need to be continued, since there will be a long rollout for immunization and not everybody will be able to take advantage of it. Also, because colleges and universities have such variation — in size, profile, complexity, community and other characteristics — decisions will vary from school to school.

The report covers 10 lessons, developed with input from members of the Societal Experts Action Network, a group of university experts pulled together by the National Academies to develop evidence-based recommendations for supporting response during the pandemic:

  • Testing is just one component of a mitigation strategy, which should also encompass contact tracing, isolation of people with positive results, use of personal protective equipment, exposure notification, wastewater and other group surveillance methods, and communication to promote adoption of protective behaviors.
  • Programs need to be tailored to different schools and different situations. For example, commuter versus noncommuter status will affect programming.
  • Schools need to engage leadership across the institution through "consistent, frequent virtual meetings."
  • Campuses need to work with local public health authorities and other partners to leverage available resources and share best practices.
  • Daily data collection should become routine, as part of informing decision-making.
  • When tests come back positive, the school needs to have a "quick response" process in place.
  • Mitigation strategies need to be adaptable and flexible, as circumstances change.
  • The IT infrastructure put in place for test registration, check-in and delivery of results needs to respect data transparency and privacy while also delivering accurate information quickly.
  • Communicating data is "an essential piece of the testing strategy." That includes regular townhall discussions and dashboards.
  • Build "a culture of shared responsibility" with students and watch for opportunities to provide them with occasions for experiential learning or internships.

The report has also provided details on specific approaches currently used by universities and colleges around the country. It's available with free registration on the National Academics Press website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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