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Amid COVID-19 Safety Concerns, Iowa’s Public Universities Prepare For Students To Return

Natalie Krebs
A sign directs Iowa State University students to the school's COVID-19 testing site in early August. Students living on campus are required to get tested before moving in.

As Iowa’s three public universities prepare to cautiously welcome students and faculty back this month amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some have expressed concerns about the schools' ability to safely reopen.

Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa say they’re taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 like modifying classrooms for social distancing, mandating face coverings, enhancing cleaning, moving large classes online and working with contact tracers, but they have different approaches to testing.

Last month, ISU announced it will test the 9,300 students who live on campus before they move in, making it the only university of the three to do so.

“Testing is just one element of our strategy,” Erin Baldwin, the director of ISU’s health center, said at a press briefing last week. “So we felt like since we have a large group of students that were moving into our residence halls, it was important to have that testing as we introduce our students to congregate housing.”

Baldwin said the one-time testing will give the university a “good snapshot” of the students coming in so they can put any positive cases in isolation.

According to results released by the school on Friday, 66 students, or 2.2 percent, of the 3,037 students tested so far were positive.

ISU has announced that testing will also be available at the university’s health center, but will be limited to those with symptoms or known exposure.

Shelley O’Connell, UNI’s executive director for student health and well-being, said students with symptoms or known exposure -- meaning close contact for at least 15 minutes with someone who has tested positive -- will also have access to testing at the university health center, but those living in on campus housing will not be tested beforehand.

On campus students will get rapid testing where they’ll get results in just 15 minutes, O’Connell said.

Charity Nebbe
The University of Iowa said it will take safety precautions such as requiring facial coverings and placing hand sanitizer stations across campus.

“We can quickly determine whether they have it and then we can move into an isolation area versus keeping them in quarantine waiting for us to get the test results back from the state hygienic lab,” she said.

In a press release sent out last week, the University of Iowa said it will not provide testing for campus moving into residence halls. It said this one-time testing can miss early stages of infection resulting in a “false sense of security” and will take significant resources.

Instead, the university said it will focus on prevention measures like reducing campus density, modifying classrooms for social distancing and requiring face coverings.

Like ISU and UNI, UI said it is prepared to test students with symptoms or known exposure. Students are instructed to call the student health nurseline to request a test.

Experts opinions vary on testing guidelines

Many public health experts agree that COVID-19 testing is a key component to controlling the spread of the virus, but opinions on just how universities should handle testing have varied.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have put out guidelines recommending testing for those on campus with symptoms of COVID-19 or who have a known or suspected exposure to someone diagnosed.

The agency doesn’t recommend “entry testing” for students, faculty and staff because it has not been systematically studied.

But some public health experts have disagreed with the federal agency’s recommendations.

“I have to say that I'm baffled, flabbergasted by the CDC’s view on this,” said David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

He co-authored a study published last month that recommends students be tested for COVID-19 every two to three days in order for campuses to safely reopen along with “strict adherence to social distancing and other preventive practices.” He said frequent testing -- even with less accurate tests -- will help detect outbreaks.

Paltiel says his team found the virus moves too swiftly to contain an outbreak if universities are monitoring for symptoms, especially for young people who are more likely to be asymptomatic.

“Frankly, it’s as if a fire department told you, we're not going to respond to calls until we have evidence that the house is actually burnt down,” he said.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN last week that testing will be key to reopening.

He said universities could safely reopen if they plan to test and quarantine students for 14 days before they arrive on campus and if students follow safety precautions.

"If done properly, it would not be a risk, but then again, you've got to be careful when you get people coming in from outside," Fauci told CNN. "But I think if they maintain the guidelines that are put together for people coming back, that they should be fine."

Limitations on campus testing

While some universities across the country like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign plan to frequently test students, many public universities across the country aren’t following suit.

For many universities, mass testing -- even once -- can be expensive and logistically difficult. Each test can cost between $10 and $50 each, according to the Yale study, and there needs to be enough staffing and lab capacity to process thousands of tests.

Figures from ISU, UI and UNI last fall put enrollment at more than 76,000 -- with both ISU and UI reporting more than 30,000 students each.

Additionally, the state’s public universities have faced financial setbacks from the pandemic. Last month, the state Board of Regents approved a $65 million budget cut from the state legislature.

And some public health experts are predicting testing on campuses as students return could put a significant strain on the country’s testing resources.

‘Language has been vague’

Nearly half of the state’s positive cases have been in people between 18 and 40, according to the state’s coronavirus website. Earlier this summer, Johnson and Story counties, which are home to UI and ISU, saw sharp increases in the number of COVID-19 cases following the easing of Gov. Kim Reynolds' restrictions on businesses.

County health officials told IPR in June that the majority of new cases were in people between 18 and 25.

Last week, a group of University of Iowa students and faculty members announced they’re planning to submit a petition signed by nearly 300 people calling for the university prioritize online classes.

The petition cites a rising number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa along with a lack of widespread testing and the lack of a statewide mask mandate as the main reasons for the push.

Natalie Krebs
A sign in Iowa State University's Memorial Union reminds students of safety protocol to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors passed a mandate requiring the use of facial coverings in public that will go into effect this week, despite the state’s position that local governments do not have the authority to pass such mandates. UI said it will require facial coverings on campus.

Megan Knight is an associate professor in the department of rhetoric who signed the UI petition. She said she’s gotten a “firehose” of information on COVID-19 from the university, but when it comes to finding specifics on testing, language has been vague.

“You know, inform your local HR person if you begin to experience symptoms. You know, testing will follow CDC recommendations,” she said. “I mean, there isn't anything specific about where we would get tested.”

The university has not released the locations of any campus testing sites. But it says students should call or email a student health nurseline if they have symptoms or have been exposed.

University of Iowa's student governments sent a letter last week to administrators urging them to move "all non-essential in person learning, activities and events to an online format" over concerns that the virus is not under control and could easily spread on campus.

"While we deeply miss our traditional learning environments and collegiate social experiences, the rising cases and risks associated with COVID-19 make returning to campus an alarming prospect," the letter said.

The university said it will prioritize face-to-face instruction for classes with less than 50 students as long as classrooms have enough space to social distance.

University of Iowa spokesperson Anne Bassett said in a written statement that the school is working to give "as much choice and certainty as possible" to the campus community while following public health guidelines.

Jade Miller, a University of Iowa senior, said she’s worried about asymptomatic spread on campus and in the community, as many young people don’t experience COVID-19 symptoms.

“It's just a little bit nerve wracking that there are still hoops that you need to jump through in order to get tested,” Miller said.

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter said she’d like to see more classes online because she’s concerned about students spreading COVID-19 in the community.

“It scares the hell out of me to see 30,000 plus students coming back into the community,” said Porter. "For me, knowing that when they come in, there's no type of testing is going to be done of the students when they're coming here.”

At Iowa State University last week, students shuffled into makeshift lines created by yellow, blue and red flags outside the university’s recreation center to get their mandatory COVID-19 tests.

The campus was quiet as move-in dates have been staggered for students living on campus, who have been given different timeframes from roommates to move in their belongings.

Outside the center, Cedar Rapids resident Craig McDermott waited for his 18-year-old son Logan, a freshman who’s moving into a dorm room.

McDermott said he’s supportive of the entry testing to get a “baseline number,” but said mass testing isn’t an easy solution.

“The more you can test the better but, you know, it’s just not always feasible, and we have to make sure that these tests are accurate before we actually put a lot of credibility in it,” he said.

He said people on campus seem to be following the university's COVID-19 precautions.

“Everyone's wearing masks ... around here. So it seems like people are staying pretty far apart. So I'm completely comfortable with it,” McDermott said.

Ashlyn Dunn, an ISU sophomore who works in a campus dining facility, said she’s both excited and “very nervous” to be on campus after last year was cut short and would prefer in person classes.

“I just haven't decided if it's worth the risk yet. I guess I'll see how the first week or two goes,” she said.

Dunn said she’d feel more comfortable with more testing on campus for groups such as for student employees.

“I just think it's not very safe to not test everyone because I know that they're like social distance, stay six feet apart, but it's not possible everywhere.” she said. “Not everyone's wearing their mask correctly. I don't know. It just doesn't seem as safe as it could be.”