This fall semester will look and feel very different at the Brandeis University campus in Waltham — beginning with mandated testing. Inside a pop-up clinic set up this summer, Brandeis has been piloting COVID-19 testing on faculty, staff and about 100 students.
“We did not send home all of our students in the spring and we’ve continued to have students who’ve lived on our campus this summer,” Provost Lisa Lynch explained.
Lynch said the first big wave of students is expected in mid-August and Brandeis is prepared to provide an on-campus, residential experience for about 2,000 undergrads from all over the country. These students will live in dorms, which many skeptics see as hotbeds for spreading coronavirus. Classes will be held in person, remotely or through a combination of both. The key, Lynch said, will be social distancing, mask wearing, hand-washing, and, of course, testing.
Brandeis and other schools across the state, from Williams College to Northeastern University, have signed contracts with Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute to get their tests processed. The institute, which opened its testing lab in March and is pledging to process tens of thousands of tests each day, says it can provide results within 24 hours and expand its capacity if necessary. So far this month, with fewer people on campuses and needing tests, the institute has completed between 1,087 to 8,511 tests per day, according to its website.
Testing will be frequent for most Brandeis students.
“If they’re coming on to campus three days or more, or if they’re living on campus, we’re going to be testing them twice a week,” Lynch said.
Those on campus less frequently — about 1,500 people, comprising of graduate students living off campus, faculty and staff — will be tested once a week. Brandeis will cover the cost for all tests.
The price tag? Thirty bucks a pop — or about $3 million overall.
“If the volume goes up, that price will fall,” Lynch explained. “So that is what really made this a game-changer for us and allowed us to take a much more aggressive strategy of universal testing at high frequency on our campus.”
The testing plans of Massachusetts colleges vary. Some are keeping all classes online and won’t test at all. Others will only test students if they show symptoms.
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker said that travelers to Massachusetts, including returning college students, will have to quarantine for two weeks or provide the results of a negative test — unless they are coming from another New England state, New York, New Jersey or Hawaii. With some students, professors and staff due back on campus in just a few weeks, many local colleges are scrambling to provide free COVID-19 tests to determine who’s infected.
The problem for most colleges, researchers say, will be their own capacity to pay for and administer testing quickly and then isolate anyone who tests positive before there’s an outbreak on or off campus.
“This is an experiment,” said former homeland officer Juliette Kayyem. “You can have lots of people getting tested, but what are the results?”
Kayyem, a WGBH contributor and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, acknowledges plans to require universal testing are well-meaning, but it’s still unclear how colleges are going to acquire and process enough tests.
“Some of the colleges and universities talk about utilizing their schools of public health or their schools of medicine, but they're part of the United States,” she said, noting that the supply chain challenges that all states are facing will affect Harvard and MIT, too.
These campuses don’t operate in a bubble, so Kayyem says colleges should expect a lot of positive results and then ask themselves: What's the number where they need to shut it down again?
“It can't be one. It's probably not even 10. Is it a hundred or a thousand? That they are not disclosing, and maybe they don't know,” she said.
Lynch said that if positive test rates at Brandeis exceed 5 percent for more than a day or two, the school would enter “code red,” shutting down the campus and sending students back home.
But even if colleges do know their limits, another outstanding question is whether they can afford testing.
Economist Robert Kelchen, who teaches higher ed finance at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says cash-strapped residential colleges like Brandeis that depend on room and board revenue desperately need students back on campus this fall for financial reasons.
“They have to wait for students to actually come to get most of that money,” Kelchen said. “It's a math problem for colleges. How much can they afford to spend to keep students and employees safe, versus what would it cost them just to have a remote fall semester?”
Some colleges that had pledged to bring students back to campus are now backtracking, saying it’s just not safe given transmission rates. Berklee College of Music in Boston and several historically Black colleges in Georgia, including Morehouse and Spelman, recently reversed course, announcing that they'll begin the semester 100 percent online, at least in part, because they can’t pay for safety precautions.
“The virus is basically out of control [in Georgia] and they didn't want to bring students in close quarters when they can't afford to do that level of testing,” Kelchen said.
While there’s a lot of financial uncertainty, one thing is clear: The virus doesn’t seem to care about your personal or ethical preferences when it comes to wearing a mask and testing. That’s why Harvard’s Kayyem said she thinks there should be consequences for those who don’t comply.
“They should be fined, penalized, and it should be viewed for faculty and staff as a contractual break,” she said. “You would penalize a faculty member if they brought a loaded gun to a classroom, and I view this as the equivalent.”
At Brandeis, Lynch says anyone who wants to come to campus or live on campus will need to be tested.
She would not explicitly address how the university plans to enforce its testing policy, but she said Brandeis will maintain a database tracking who’s coming to campus and being tested.
“We're not going to be putting people into jail the first time they miss a test,” Lynch said. “It’s really important to do the testing, but testing does not stop COVID. What stops COVID is all of the other good public health practices that all of us take.”