Dive Brief:

  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), which drew national attention for its aggressive coronavirus testing strategy, has seen a spike in cases since classes began last week. Students and faculty are required to be tested twice a week.
  • The state’s flagship campus reported more than 700 new cases between Aug. 24 and 31. University officials attributed the uptick to students ignoring health guidance by attending large social gatherings and not heeding instructions to isolate.
  • The trends in student behavior suggest that widespread testing likely won’t be enough to mitigate the virus’s spread on campuses. 

Dive Insight:

Coronavirus testing has been key in colleges’ fall reopening plans, but institutions’ access to tests, and their ability to pay for them, varies drastically. Affluent colleges and those with ties to medical facilities, for instance, could have an easier time handling the virus. 

One recent study suggested colleges would need to screen students for the virus every two days to stem it successfully using lower-cost testing options, with the caveat that students would also need to adhere to social distancing measures.

And some UIUC students did not abide by health guidance. More than 100 of them, and several student organizations, will be disciplined for breaking the university’s rules, campus officials said in a statement Wednesday. Two students have been suspended.

In response, the university is beefing up enforcement efforts for at least two weeks. More staff members will be on hand to watch for large social gatherings, and the university is working with the Champaign Urbana Public Health District to try to more quickly identify positive cases. Students who host a party or refuse to quarantine will be immediately suspended.

Undergraduate students should only leave their homes for “essential activities,” such as grocery shopping, going to work or getting coronavirus tests, the university said. Officials noted that the campus was on track to have between 75 and 100 new cases a day, and as many as 8,000 positive cases over the course of the semester.

Taking swift action in response to the rise in cases, including by removing certain students from campus, will help the testing program succeed, officials said in a statement.

UIUC has been lauded for its robust coronavirus testing and was considered a model for other colleges reopening this fall. The university is pursuing a mix of in-person and online classes. 

Students and faculty who will be on campus this fall must be screened for the virus twice weekly. The university has developed a saliva-based test, which officials have said has a faster turnaround time and is more efficient than other methods of detecting the virus.

“Testing, testing, and more testing is the road to the promised land for in-person education,” two UIUC academics wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed published the day classes began.

UIUC’s test results could come back within hours, which is vital for tracking asymptomatic carriers, who are among the most “deadly” vectors, the pair wrote. But a successful in-person fall, they noted, hinges on student participation in the testing program, as well as them meeting other health guidelines: wearing face coverings, social distancing and hand-washing. 

But colleges can’t rely on students doing that, behavioral experts told Education Dive. Some students will intentionally ignore rules and throw big parties, but many others will likely make innocuous mistakes, such as stopping to talk to a friend maskless, they said.

Colleges have started to blame students for a rise in case counts, but that likely won’t help either, experts said.

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