With nearly a year of coronavirus experience behind them, leaders at many universities in the United States ushered in the new term pledging not to repeat the errors of last year, when infection rates soared on campuses and in the surrounding communities.
But although most schools have pledged to increase testing, it is an expensive proposition at a time when many are struggling financially, and not all are testing students as often as recommended by public health experts.
The plans to keep the virus under control, for example, at the University of Michigan — which had more than 2,500 confirmed cases by the end of the fall semester — included increasing testing, offering more courses online, limiting dorm rooms to one occupant and offering no tolerance for rules violations. Yet already more than 1,000 new virus cases have been announced by the school since Jan. 1.
Other universities across the country have also encountered obstacles to a smooth spring, including the unexpected challenge of emerging variants — detected in recent days at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Miami, Tulane University in New Orleans and the University of California, Berkeley — and the more common problem of recalcitrant students.
At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, students returning after winter break were required to be tested upon arrival and were then asked to avoid social interactions while awaiting results. But some had other ideas.
“We identified a cluster of positive Covid-19 cases linked to students who did not follow the arrival shelter-in-place rules,” a campuswide email reported on Jan. 23, blaming two student organizations for violating protocols. “More than 100 students are now in quarantine.”
The foundation of most university plans for the spring semester centers on increased testing to identify infected students before they display symptoms, and then placing them in isolation. The testing push has grown since July, when a study recommended that students be tested twice a week to better detect asymptomatic infections.
The American College Health Association later embraced the idea, issuing guidelines in December. “For the spring, we specifically recommend that all students are tested on arrival and twice a week thereafter if possible,” said Gerri Taylor, a co-chair of the organization’s Covid-19 task force.
Ms. Taylor said her organization did not know what percentage of schools had adopted the recommendations, and a survey of colleges across the country revealed a variety of requirements, ranging from voluntary testing to mandatory testing twice a week.