It could add up this fall to 85,000 tests for Colby at a cost of as much as $2.5 million. That’s far more testing per capita than some major universities are projecting.
Of all the educational unknowns in an extraordinary year of disease and disruption, one of the most vexing for colleges and universities is this: How much viral testing is enough?
The answer depends on factors including where colleges are located, how many students are invited to campus, whether they take classes face-to-face and how much schools can afford to spend on health surveillance.
There is no national consensus on testing. Many schools are focusing on students and employees who have covid-19 symptoms or suspect that they were exposed to the virus that causes the disease. Some also plan to test dormitory wastewater and selected groups of students.
Colby, which plans to have classes in person as much as possible, has staked out a maximalist position: Test everyone, and test often.
“It’s really important to our students, faculty, staff and families that we have a model in place that does absolutely everything possible to secure their safety,” Colby President David A. Greene said. Frequent and universal testing, he said, will enable the college to isolate those who test positive “before they’re actually spreading the virus in a significant way. That really is what it comes down to.”
Behind the strategy is a desire to bring almost all of Colby’s 2,000-plus students to campus. How many will come is unknown.
“I definitely overall really appreciate the thoughtfulness” of Colby’s safety plan, said Ellie Batchelder, 19, a rising junior from Kittery Point, Maine. But she confessed lingering uncertainty. Batchelder, a violinist, worries that the pandemic might sideline the orchestra and other extracurricular activities. “There’s a lot of aspects outside of academics that are really important,” she said. “I’m still trying to decide if I will return.”
Viral testing will become an essential campus rite in the fall as colleges and universities seek to contain an infectious disease that has killed at least 139,000 Americans since February.
Most college students do not face as much risk as people who are older and have more health problems. But students can be asymptomatic carriers, posing a potential threat to others around them, from their professors to the staffers who clean their dormitories and serve their food. They also could bring the virus to campus from hometowns around the country and the world.
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