Students at St. Olaf College in Northfield will be tested twice for COVID-19 in the first weeks of the semester and are expected to take their temperatures and report symptoms daily.
The University of Minnesota will test only symptomatic students or those exposed to someone who tests positive. The school will encourage symptom monitoring but not require it.
Minnesota health officials say there is no one-size-fits-all approach to controlling the spread of COVID-19 on campuses. But as students start moving into dormitories, some schools are taking more precautions than others to prevent outbreaks that could close a campus. Private colleges are starting with visitor restrictions and reduced activities. The Minnesota State system of public universities and community colleges will require students to use a health screening app daily before coming to campus.
“I’m hopeful that … everyone will just be aware of the status of COVID cases,” St. Olaf senior Emma Purcell said. The private college will report new cases online weekly.
“We would not want to hide that kind of information,” St. Olaf President David Anderson said.
Meanwhile, U officials say they do not plan to regularly disclose how many cases surface on the school’s five campuses because they “do not have any way of tracking numbers in a comprehensive way.” Data obtained through a Star Tribune public records request show that 68 students tested positive for COVID-19 at Boynton Health clinic on the U’s Twin Cities campus between April 1 and July 29. The university did not report the cases to its campus community.
State health officials said Wednesday that colleges should notify students, parents and faculty of the spread of the virus in their campus communities. Officials have advised against mass testing of college students, warning it could provide a “false sense of security” and drain state resources.
But White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx told state and local leaders Wednesday that colleges should test returning students and even prepare for potential “surge testing,” the Center for Public Integrity reported. Her comments came after outbreaks at the University of North Carolina and University of Notre Dame forced a return to online classes.
A few Minnesota private universities — including Macalester College in St. Paul and Carleton College in Northfield — will test all students, staff and faculty twice after they arrive on campus. Other private colleges such as the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University and Gustavus Adolphus College will test only those who are symptomatic or exposed, as will Minnesota State’s 37 colleges and universities.
“Testing does not prevent the transmission of COVID. Social distancing and masking prevent the transmission of COVID,” said state epidemiologist Cynthia Kenyon, who is advising colleges in fall preparations.
U plan scrutinized
The University of Minnesota, which is considering delaying its reopening, has a testing plan similar to most other state colleges. But the school’s decision to not publicly share data of COVID-19 cases through a dashboard or other means has drawn scrutiny.
Amy Ma, the U’s student body president, criticized the school for not telling students and faculty about the spring and summer student cases at the Twin Cities campus’ clinic. The school brought some students back to campus in July for a summer session.
“I would want to know as a student what is happening at our university, and I think that could be something that changes students’ minds as to if they want to stay or go home,” Ma said. “I do think that the U has a responsibility to make our reopening as safe as it can be … and I don’t know that we’re there yet.”
An additional 33 people who were not students tested positive at the campus clinic between April and the end of July, for a total of 101 cases out of 1,553 tests administered, data obtained by the Star Tribune show.
Jill DeBoer, director of the U’s health emergency response office, said it is not possible to have an accurate tally when students and faculty may be tested at clinics off campus. U spokesman Chuck Tombarge added that it would be “misleading and inaccurate” for the university to report only positive cases it is aware of because those numbers might reflect just a subset of the school’s population.
Students and faculty should “assume cases exist on a regular basis” and take precautions to reduce spread, Tombarge said. Those who are exposed will be notified through contact tracing. The university will monitor data collected by state and local officials to determine “if and when” to communicate broadly with the campus community, Tombarge said.
Most Minnesota colleges may not achieve a complete tally of students and employees who test positive for COVID-19, but many still plan to publicize what they know.
Minnesota State University, Mankato will post case data to a dashboard on its website. All Minnesota State colleges will establish a common framework for tracking and reporting cases, system spokesman Doug Anderson said. Anderson could not yet say whether every system college will establish a data dashboard, but they will share information with campus communities “as appropriate.”
Additionally, Carleton, Macalester, St. Thomas, Gustavus, St. Catherine University, and the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University will regularly publicize cases through an online dashboard or notifications, officials say.
At most Minnesota colleges, students living on campus who test positive will quarantine in dorms set aside for isolation.
Student behavior important
Ultimately, even the best-laid plans may be upended.
On Thursday, the first day of classes at St. Olaf, 17 students were suspended for the fall semester because of an off-campus party held before move-in. Masks were not worn, and at least one student present was infected with COVID-19. Fifty students must quarantine due to a lack of social distancing. Much, but not all, of the quarantine is needed because of the party.
Seton Hall University Prof. Robert Kelchen, who studies higher education finance and accountability, expects many colleges that are reopening to wind up shifting most classes online. Colleges in areas where the virus is less prevalent could be an exception, he said, as could schools with secluded campuses and frequent testing.
Institutions have spent months establishing testing plans and renovating campus spaces to ensure students can safely return this fall, said Kenyon, the state epidemiologist. Now, she said the future of the fall semester largely rests with students.
“It’s up to them for this to be a successful fall,” Kenyon said.
Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234