College COVID-19 Testing and Tracing Protocols

The decision whether to reopen college campuses this fall was undoubtedly a difficult one for college presidents (and their Boards of Trustees or state governing boards), requiring institutions to balance health and safety concerns, finances and what a residential college experience could be in the midst of a pandemic. Decisions sometimes came down to the wire, with Northwestern, for example, pulling back on its reopening policy just two weeks before the start of classes.

Colleges that decided to “re-open” for the fall have implemented a variety of approaches to keeping their students, faculty, staff and surrounding community safe – some with greater success than others. While most colleges have implemented a “mask and social distance policy,” a survey of multiple college websites shows different approaches to testing and tracing:

  • Some schools are testing only those with symptoms
  • Some are testing a random sampling of students, faculty and staff
  • Some are testing students, faculty and staff multiple times a week

As recently noted by the New York Times, schools with more robust testing plans have managed to more successfully contain the virus. Thus, while schools such as Boston University, which tests only those with symptoms, saw a “worrisome increase” in COVID cases in mid-October, forcing it to adopt more stringent policies, colleges such as Amherst College (testing all students, staff and faculty three times a week) and Wesleyan University (testing all students, staff and faculty twice a week), have reported low incidents of COVID (in fact, with many weeks a 0.00% positivity rate). Many of these colleges have even been able to loosen COVID restrictions, allowing, for example, a small number of students to gather indoors provided they maintain appropriate social distance and wear masks. Notably, many of the small liberal arts colleges in New England that have implemented robust testing and tracing programs are working with the Broad Institute which is providing testing results in 24 to 36 hours.

Of course, not all students attend small liberal arts colleges. Fortunately many larger universities have implemented surveillance testing programs, which while not as robust as the across-the-board testing that is occurring at colleges like Amherst and Wesleyan, has nonetheless been effective in keeping COVID numbers under a one percent positivity rate. Students at Duke and Boston College (which recently implemented weekly testing of those in high-contact positions such as dining services employees and residential advisors) have been able to successfully remain on campus and rebound from spikes that occurred earlier in the semester.

Even at colleges that have kept COVID numbers in low, this has not been a “normal” semester. Most colleges cancelled their fall break – days off around a long weekend in October, and most have decided that the students will not return to campus after the Thanksgiving holiday, but instead will continue their last few weeks of classes and take their exams remotely in December.

And as plans for the spring semester are beginning to take shape, colleges are still finding it necessary to adapt. Many have announced later than typical start dates, abbreviated spring breaks, and no decisions on commencements.

As current high school seniors finalize their college applications, understanding how colleges have approached their fall and spring re-openings, and what measures they have put in place to keep students safe, is another data point they can factor in to their decisions about where to apply, and, ultimately, where to matriculate.