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Many Colleges Aren't Aggressively Testing Students For Coronavirus

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right now, despite the pandemic, a lot of colleges and universities have some students on campus, and of course, they have plans for keeping those students safe. But an NPR analysis finds that a lot of schools are not taking what seems like a basic step - they are not regularly testing students for coronavirus. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been on a road trip visiting college campuses, and she's with us to talk about this new data. Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What campus are you on this morning?

NADWORNY: So we're at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where - due to a large outbreak on campus - there's currently a ban for 18- to 22-year-olds on any social gathering over two people. Across the country, many university towns have struggled to keep the campus spread under control.

KING: And you found that most campuses, you know, despite having other barriers in place, like gatherings, they aren't regularly testing students.

NADWORNY: That's right. So one strategy that's been particularly helpful in keeping spread low on campus has been widespread testing, but our analysis shows that's not happening. We used data from more than 1,400 colleges, compiled by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. The national data shows that more than 2 out of 3 colleges with some in-person classes aren't doing any regular testing. Some have no clear testing plan; others are only testing symptomatic students.

KING: Even though we know asymptomatic people can pass it on. You know, most of the country isn't doing aggressive, widespread testing. What makes it extra dicey on college campuses?

NADWORNY: Well, colleges are social breeding grounds. I mean, they're super social places. And if schools can't get in front of outbreaks, they're playing catch-up. And so spread is happening unknowingly and seeping into surrounding communities. And many colleges are ending the semester early, sending students home in November. Here's David Paltiel, a public health expert at Yale University.

DAVID PALTIEL: I am deeply concerned about the fact that Thanksgiving may roll around and we may be sending all sorts of ticking time bombs home.

KING: Ticking time bombs is not what you want to hear. Why aren't more colleges doing widespread testing?

NADWORNY: Well, there's two reasons. One, the CDC's guidelines didn't recommend it. Just last week, they issued new guidance saying entry-level testing combined with regularly testing students, quote, "might prevent or reduce COVID-19 transmission" but stopped short of actually making clear recommendations. Here's Paltiel again.

PALTIEL: If the CDC has issued schools a free get-out-of-jail pass that says go ahead and do nothing, then, you know, what do we expect? The CDC's guidance is dangerous, and it's disingenuous and not evidence based.

NADWORNY: The other big reason is cost. In some places, tests still cost more than $100. Here's Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, a group of college presidents.

TERRY HARTLE: It's an expensive undertaking. The amount of money colleges and universities will spend on testing is likely to dwarf every projection we would have made a few months ago.

NADWORNY: And that's because it's not just one test per student; they've got to test students multiple times. In a letter to congressional leaders last week, higher education groups requested at least $120 billion from Congress to help them with added coronavirus costs, including testing.

KING: Is that a sign that colleges are starting to think differently about widespread testing?

NADWORNY: Yeah, we are seeing colleges start to do more regular testing, especially after they've detected an outbreak. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after a spike there, they started weekly testing the dorms on campus. I expect we'll continue to see this. You know, it's important to remember, though, that the most effective way to do widespread testing is to make it mandatory, not voluntary. And the more students you test, the better.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Boulder, Colo., this morning. Thanks, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.

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