College Campuses Prepare For Another Semester Of COVID-19, Plan To Expand Testing
Updated at 11:09 a.m., Dec. 16, with study abroad policies
College students can expect campus life this spring to look similar to how it did this fall.
Most St. Louis-area universities prevented large coronavirus outbreaks on campuses in 2020. School leaders say they plan to stick to the same playbook next year: mandating masks on campus, testing students and staff for the coronavirus and canceling large gatherings.
“We learned a lot this fall,” said Maryville University president Mark Lombardi. “I think most of what we did worked very, very well. So all things being equal, I think we'll take a similar, not exactly the same, approach to the spring.”
Next semester, most area universities will return in the last two weeks of January to offer both virtual and in-person classes. University of Missouri-St. Louis recently announced it will continue to waive application fees and additional fees for online courses this spring. Washington University and Lindenwood University have canceled spring break in 2021 to avoid potential vacation-fueled outbreaks.
Numerous area universities, including UMSL, Wash U and Webster University, suspended spring study abroad programs. UMSL also canceled summer 2021 study abroad trips.
Most public health measures on local campuses are working, Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin said.
“There is this narrative that's being driven — certainly driven by the New York Times, and other places as well — that university campuses have become this hotbed of COVID, and are infecting communities and everything else,” he said.
“But that’s not universally the case,” Martin said. Less than 1% of Wash U undergraduates have tested positive for the virus this semester, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The New York Times has traced nearly 400,000 coronavirus cases to college campuses in the U.S. so far. Some clustered outbreaks have occurred on campuses in the St. Louis area.
St. Louis University President Fred Pestello addressed students in a memo titled “We Must Do Better” after an outbreak in early November. Lindenwood University administrators warned students they could be removed from campus housing for hosting on-campus parties, after an outbreak following Labor Day weekend.
Next year, Wash U plans to continue to test undergraduate students living on campus every two weeks with saliva-based tests developed by geneticists at the school. Wash U is the only college in the region to produce, administer and analyze its own tests.
‘Like the Wild West’
Smaller schools have struggled to access coronavirus testing, but many plan to expand testing this spring.
Last month, The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development distributed more than 20,000 coronavirus tests combined to five regional colleges: Fontbonne University, Maryville University, Webster, UMSL and SLU.
Some of these colleges previously could not provide in-house testing on campus and instead worked with local health departments to administer tests through mobile testing sites.
Local campuses, including Maryville University, often work with private companies such as LabCorp to provide testing services. But obtaining testing has been frustrating, said Lombardi, Maryville’s president.
“Because we never had a national strategy in this country to address this issue, the testing services were like the Wild West out there, he said.“There are companies, there's public entities, there's private entities — all of whom are trying to get their hands on tests.”
Maryville’s coronavirus response will cost upwards of $6 million for the 2020-21 academic school year, Lombardi estimates.
This spring, Maryville applied to be a vaccine site and is waiting for approval from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Wash U also plans to offer the vaccine to students, if doses become readily available.
“Once vaccines are more widely used, so long as individuals continue masking, distancing, and hand washing, we may be in a position towards the end of the semester for things to begin to look a little bit more normal,” Martin said.
Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake