Colleges Rise to the Challenge of Proper COVID-19 Testing

Manya Kodali, Applied Sciences, Fall 2020

Image Description: The transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 has necessitated increased testing and innovative methods to keep workers safe. Above, a scientist is seen analyzing COVID-19 samples.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions as to how schooling will be conducted; the return to college this fall was especially uncertain as students often live in close quarters. The nation’s universities have had an uncoordinated response, with many turning a blind eye to partying, failing to enforcing students quarantines, and ultimately compromising the safety of their students, faculty, and communities.1,3 These universities directly contradict pleas from various professionals and a myriad of studies calling for proactive responses and widespread testing.5 However, even as some colleges are failing to manage their campuses, many others have created successful systems to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

The Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have designed a program offering COVID-19 assays, which has allowed for a massive amount of testing and short turnaround times for many universities.4 The large-scale genomics facility at the Broad Institute, previously used for clinical gene sequencing, was quickly converted into a COVID-19 test-processing center earlier this year and has now completed over two million tests with a 1% positive rate.2 Over 100 colleges and universities have joined the program and are receiving tests at a price of $25, far below the average cost of over $100.4 Simulated models created in a study by Harvard and Yale Universities have shown that the most important factor to keep students and faculty safe is the frequency of testing rather than test sensitivity.5 Bowdoin college is an exemplary case of how high testing frequency can prevent outbreaks; with forty percent of the student body on campus and tests for students twice a week, only three positive cases were found as of September 18 out of 10,000 tests administered.4

Schools that lack the resources and funding to partner with programs like the Broad Institute have still been able to create similarly safe protocol on their own. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created its own system of testing. Using simple saliva tests, the school has the ability to test 10,000 people each day, at no cost to students and staff, with results being sent out in mere hours.6

Many colleges have also developed unique response plans in an attempt to minimally interfere with student life; instead of instituting overarching rules that could over or underreact to infection levels, these so-called holistic plans have differing responses based on circumstance. Tufts university is a prime example, having varying reactions to differing situations such as contained spikes, community outbreaks, or off campus outbreaks.4 Mike Ranen, Bowdoin’s associate dean of student affairs and the school’s COVID-19 resource coordinator, has stated that the school’s plan does not automatically trigger a lockdown at any specific number of cases and is instead a leveled response similar to that of Tufts.4

As the pandemic continues across the nation, the responses of these schools will continue to adapt to new obstacles. In a world where almost all aspects of life are abnormal, colleges are finding creative solutions to provide students a semi-normal life and a chance for the desired college experience.



[1] Booeshaghi, A. S., Tan, F. H., Renton, B., Berger, Z., & Pachter, L. (2020). Markedly heterogeneous COVID-19 testing plans among US colleges and universities [Preprint]. Health Policy.

[2] Broad COVID-19 Testing Dashboard. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2020, from

[3] Journal-Constitution, E. S.-T. A. J.-C. D.-T. A. (n.d.). Maskless student gatherings mar return as more Ga. Colleges begin this week. Ajc. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from /education/maskless-student-gatherings-mar-return-to-georgia-colleges/FYTDBTLXBVHKBB52QJ6O3LT7XY/

[4] Lewis, T. (n.d.). COVID-19 Testing Lab Shows How Colleges Can Reopen Safely. Scientific American. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from

[5] Paltiel AD, Zheng A, Walensky RP. Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(7):e2016818. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16818

[6] Swab, Spit Or Stay Home? A Wide Variety Of Plans To Keep Coronavirus Off Campus. (n.d.-a). NPR.Org. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from


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