United States / Coronavirus Insights
Back To School: Universities Rely On Routine COVID-19 Testing

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by Daniel Spitzer, Lead Analyst
Oct 21 2020

Schools and colleges are now well into fall semester amid the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic; however, many challenges and unknowns remain. Almost all public schools (IBISWorld report 61111a) and universities (61131a) closed in spring 2020, switching to remote or online learning. This led to significant challenges as the few platforms that were available for video conferencing (OD4594), experienced major hurdles to meet the rapid increase in demand. In addition, many students and families have begun to more seriously consider the value of university degrees that are taught online, while still carrying high tuition costs. To ameliorate concerns of the virus and the value of education, colleges across the United States have taken various approaches to incorporate hybrid learning courses and routine diagnostic testing and containment.

Diagnostic testing in the United States (62151) for COVID-19 has come a very long way since April when no test was available, with more than 1.0 million tests per day being routinely run. Testing has been considered the main tool for combating the spread of the highly infectious virus. Due to the nature of the coronavirus, some people can contract the virus while exhibiting no symptoms, and therefore, unknowingly spread the disease. These factors have made containment an extraordinary challenge, even amidst public health policies such as social distancing.

Now in the fall semester, colleges and universities are armed with substantially more information about the coronavirus. However, to safely bring students back to campuses and avoid the stigmas of high tuition costs and online learning, schools have taken various approaches to stymieing outbreaks. The myriad of methods being deployed by schools is a result of the lack of consensus on containing the virus. However, most action plans combine routine testing with protocols for how to contain outbreaks once they begin to emerge, in addition to full lockdowns.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been praised as potential model for facilitating in-person teaching. The university has one of the largest mass testing programs and is conducting on average between 10,000 and 15,000 COVID-19 tests daily. Mask wearing and mass diagnostic testing is widely seen as the most effective method for schools to operate during the pandemic. Though, even with the best laid plans, the university has reported an increasing number of positive cases due to students disregarding self-quarantine guidelines. Similarly, the University of Michigan and other schools have used temporary two-week stay-at-home orders to limit outbreaks, while trying to avoid full shutdowns. Much remains to be determined as other schools, such as Middlebury College, have announced that they are delaying the start of spring semester and students will likely return using a hybrid online learning model. These cases highlight the enormous challenges colleges experience as they attempt to balance safety and providing students with valuable in-person classes.


Edited by Alexandria Valenti