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Some Colleges Begin Widespread COVID-19 Testing, But Not All Schools Have That Option

Carly O'Connell is excited to go back to UMass as a sophomore in legal studies. She'll be among about a thousand students allowed to live on campus — some are taking hands-on classes, and others, like O’Connell, got special permission for personal reasons.

The university assigned her an apartment suite with a friend.

“I think it will be fun and, like, definitely different,” O’Connell said.

 Carly O'Connell is a UMass Amherst sophomore who is living on campus in the fall of 2020.
Credit Submitted by Carly O'Connell
Carly O'Connell is a UMass Amherst sophomore who is living on campus in the fall of 2020.

But before she moves in on Sunday, her first stop will be the Mullins Center for a COVID-19 test.

UMass has converted the campus sports arena into a testing venue, with some students getting nasal swabs at what’s usually a concession stand. As the semester nears, a couple thousand students and staff have already been tested.

O’Connell doesn't mind the twice-a-week tests she'll have to take.

“I understand why they're doing it,” she said. “I mean, yeah, it's going to be a hassle, but it's really, really needed, I guess.”

In fact, she thinks the school should go even further and require testing for students living off campus too, including friends she expects to hang out with.

“If I had an off-campus apartment, I probably wouldn't get tested unless I felt sick,” she said.

As it is, UMass is expecting to give 10,000 tests a week on campus. Samples are sent to the Broad Institute, a lab in Cambridge that has contracted with a number of colleges around the Northeast — so many, in fact, that they've stopped agreeing to partner with any more.

UMass said it’s paying $1.4 million for up to 56,000 quick-turnaround tests, which comes to $25 per test.

Amherst College and Hampshire College have also announced contracts with the Broad institute for regular testing of everyone on campus.

But that's just not an option for all colleges.

“Honestly, I think a big piece of this is cost,” said Matthew Scott, vice president for student affairs at American International College in Springfield. “It's looking at the cost versus the benefit in the number of students that you have on campus.”

AIC is expecting around 600 students to live on campus this fall, most of whom will be taking classes online. Scott said more than half the students are low-income. They may have food insecurity or don’t have stable housing.

“We didn't want to close the campus completely on them if we didn't have to,” he said.

But Scott said COVID testing will be limited. Only students from high-risk states will be tested when they arrive if they haven’t been tested at home.

They can also quarantine instead of getting tested — but that’s mostly on the honor system, through a detailed questionnaire.

Scott said if students are found to have lied about their behavior or whereabouts, “all of that can be used against them. And we are having a very, very strict policy on anything that has to do with the public health concerns. We will be removing people from campus pretty quickly.”

American International College in Springfield, Mass.
Credit Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen / The Republican / MassLive.com/photos
The Republican / MassLive.com/photos
American International College in Springfield, Mass.

After the move-in period, AIC is only offering COVID tests to students with symptoms or those who have been exposed to someone with the virus.

Unlike the colleges in Amherst, Scott said, “we are not testing every single student, every week.”

Scott said AIC is on a waiting list with the Broad Institute. But even if a spot opens up, he said the college can’t guarantee the volume needed for that arrangement.

AIC looked into partnering with local hospitals in the Springfield area for widespread testing, he said, but those hospitals already have testing backlogs. Plus, Scott said the cost per test — around $100 — was just too high for AIC.

“We don't necessarily have the same endowment or means as some of the other institutions in the area,” he said. “So it is cost-prohibitive.”

For AIC, that leaves the testing of students and staff with symptoms, contact tracing and strict campus rules — including no large parties, no guests on campus and no visits between dorms.

The college is also providing outside dining areas and outdoor events on campus, such as movie nights and yoga class.

“We believe that if we tell students that they have to stay locked down in their room and not do anything, then there might be a little rebellion that happens,” Scott said. “So what we'd rather do is try to keep the students on campus and try to have them limit their travel off campus as much as possible.”

Scott said he knows there’s always a risk of an outbreak.

“We have to keep watching and we have to be concerned about it,” he said. “These are not normal times.”

A UMass employee demonstrates the COVID-19 test procedure at the Mullins Center.
Credit Adam Frenier / NEPR
A UMass employee demonstrates the COVID-19 test procedure at the Mullins Center.

Out of about 2,000 people tested at the UMass Mullins Center as of Wednesday, administrators said one person came back positive for COVID. They had no symptoms — and would likely not have been identified without widespread testing.

Amherst College has also reported one positive case out of about 2,800 tested. The college said that person is in quarantine and contact tracers are notifying people they were with.

Three other Amherst students tested positive for the virus before coming to campus, and were told — for now — to stay home.

Adam Frenier contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Matthew Scott, vice president of student affairs at American International College.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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