College officials say they won’t bring students back to campus this fall without expanded testing

College officials say they won’t bring students back to campus this fall without expanded testing

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A person walks towards the main quad during a quiet morning at Stanford University on March 9, 2020 in Stanford, California. Stanford University announced that classes will be held online for the remainder of the winter quarter after a staff member working in a clinic tested positive for the Coronavirus.

Philip Pacheco/Getty Images

Top college officials told lawmakers Thursday that universities will remain closed until officials can ensure it’s safe to bring students back to campus, which will require extensive Covid-19 testing and contact tracing.

College campuses across the country will see new coronavirus cases whenever they do reopen, regardless of whatever they do to prevent an outbreak, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told members of the U.S. Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Without adequate testing, universities “can’t function at all,” he said. 

“All the current evidence shows that we will continue to have undetected, broad community spread of Covid-19 and will continue to do so for many months to come,” he said.

Purdue University, which plans to reopen its campuses this fall, won’t test all students for the coronavirus when they return, President Mitchell Daniels told the committee. The school will instead focus its efforts on those who come into contact with known positive cases and will conduct random testing through the semester, he said.

The university has set aside over 500 beds to quarantine students who test positive, Daniels said. The university will spend “tens of millions” of dollars on enhanced health precautions, he said. 

Some universities, however, are still working toward implementing adequate testing strategies to reopen before making a final decision. Christina Paxson, president of Brown University in Rhode Island, said the university is still working with epidemiologists on a testing strategy. Classmates and dorm residents of known positive Covid-19 cases would also have to be tested. 

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can reopen if we continue to coordinate closely with the state of Rhode Island and develop a sound, science-based plan for our campus,” Paxson told the committee. “In this plan must include all of the things we just heard that we’re very familiar with now about preventing the spread of infection, testing and more testing, tracing, isolation, quarantine, social distancing, masks and hygiene measures.”

Schools should have the ability to test all students and staff and should consider random testing to detect asymptomatic cases, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee’s chairman, said during his opening remarks. 

Universities should also be able to test older faculty, students with medical conditions or people arriving from virus hot spots as well as all students in a class or dormitory where a person tests positive for the virus, he said. 

Alexander recommended university officials contact their local health department and the governor of the state, which submits a monthly plan to the federal government outlining testing supplies and needs, to expand their testing capabilities.

This is a developing story. Please check back later for updates.

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