US colleges mull new virus protocols for students’ return

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FILE In this Nov. 18, 2020, file photo, University of Utah student Abigail Shull takes a rapid COVID-19 test in Salt Lake City. As coronavirus cases are surging around the U.S., some colleges and universities are rethinking some of their plans for next semester. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

COLCHESTER, Vt. – St. Michael’s College managed to keep coronavirus cases at bay for almost two months this fall with students tested upon arrival and once every three weeks.

But in mid-October, cases at the small Vermont school started to climb. The outbreak was linked to an ice rink more than 40 miles (64 kilometers) away. The liberal arts college shifted to all-remote learning and closed the campus to visitors. By November, a total of 76 of the roughly 1,400 students on campus had tested positive, the school said.

“It was very concerning to experience the spike in cases that we did after so many weeks of surveillance tests with no positives,” President Lorraine Sterritt said by email.

When students come back for the spring semester, St. Michael’s will begin testing them weekly. The college may also require students to move to a separate residence hall when they are told to quarantine.

The coronavirus presented huge challenges for the fall semester for U.S. colleges that opened the academic year with in-person learning, including some that took a battering from outbreaks. Those not joining the growing number that will offer only virtual learning are assessing how they would bring students back after the winter holidays while the country faces crushing rates of virus infections.

Schools that are bringing students back are adjusting testing protocols, introducing new screenings, and eliminating spring breaks to discourage students from traveling to help keep campuses open.

Other schools big and small think it's still possible to keep a pandemic-era residential college experience.

California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo plans to add saliva testing in the winter quarter that will be processed on campus and will allow it “to test many more people much more quickly — our current estimate is 4,000 tests per day by mid-January,” President Jeffrey Armstrong said in a campus-wide message this month.