The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Logistics of Testing and Contract Tracing on Campus

How would Universities actually take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19?


California State University announced that classes at its twenty-three campuses would be cancelled for the fall. Instruction, with few exceptions would take place online. This decision affects nearly 500,000 students. The system announced that dealing with COVID-19 was simply not feasible. CalState would have had to spend $25 million a week on testing, and it was "enormously expensive" to contract-trace students.

Other institutions have announced plans to bring students back on campus. For example, the University of South Carolina is planning to "test every Student, Faculty and Staff member for COVID-19 upon return the campus." USC will also plan to "have the capacity to sustain a robust testing program throughout the entire semester." The University is now "reviewing several comprehensive tracing and tracking apps for early and thorough identification of at-risk contacts."

I've tried to visualize how these steps would work, logistically. Presumably, students and faculty would be required to undergo testing immediately upon their return to campus. The results may take some time to compile. Will those students be allowed to attend classes during that period? How often will students be re-tested?

Purdue University offers this plan:

We intend to know as much as possible about the viral health status of our community.  This could include pre-testing of students and staff before arrival in August, for both infection and post-infection immunity through antibodies.  It will include a robust testing system during the school year, using Purdue's own BSL-2 level laboratory for fast results.  Anyone showing symptoms will be tested promptly, and quarantined if positive, in space we will set aside for that purpose.

We expect to be able to trace proximate and/or frequent contacts of those who test positive.  Contacts in the vulnerable categories will be asked to self-quarantine for the recommended period, currently 14 days.  Those in the young, least vulnerable group will be tested, quarantined if positive, or checked regularly for symptoms if negative for both antibodies and the virus.

Keep in mind, these test kits are expensive, and the process is quite invasive. Will students actually report for regular testing? Will they actually stay quarantined. Students are not always responsible for these sorts of matters. Several of my students were studying together for final exams, social-distancing be damned.  And what if a student refuses to undergo regular testing? Or forgets?

And what about contact tracing? Imagine that you are a student, and some person calls you, and asks you to list everyone you've been in contact with the past two weeks. What if students refuse to talk to the tracers? What if students don't pick up their phones? (Students do not pick up their phones). What if they do not install the app on their phones? What if their answers are incomplete? For example, a student may have been engaging in illicit or embarrassing conduct. They may not want to disclose their contacts. There are so many reasons why students may be uncomfortable sharing that information. And I am not confident that structures can be put in place to maintain confidentiality. (Wait until those apps are hacked.)

What about contract tracers at state institutions? Students are taught not to talk to the police. Contract tracers are state officials. Washington has indicated that talking with contact tracers is voluntary. But could a University in Washington remove a student from campus who refuses to talk to a contact tracer?

And what happens if a professor learns that one of his students tested positive. At that point, the entire class goes virtual. I think professors–who tend to be older and more at risk–will fiercely resist starting and stopping a semester, based solely on the unpredictable behavior of students.

Universities usually make changes at a glacial pace. Committees meet and discuss issues for months and months. And invariably, any new policy only slightly deviate from former policies. I am not confident that educational institutions can create public health infrastructures in the span of months. I am confident that attempting to create this infrastructure will be extremely expensive, and divert much needed funds from educational missions. Any tuition increase to cover these sorts of unpopular measures will be very unpopular. I am also confident these efforts will distract professors from their primary mission: improving educational opportunities for students. I do not have answers about the correct way forward.