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How Universities Are Tackling The Spread Of COVID-19


Universities are reporting hundreds of new coronavirus cases on their campuses. And with no national guidance on how to handle outbreaks, each school has had to devise its own strategy to keep these outbreaks in check. The University of Alabama has opted to stay open for now, even after hundreds of new cases were reported this week, while the University of North Carolina sent most students home just days after the semester started following new outbreaks there.

To find out more about how universities elsewhere are handling the coronavirus pandemic, I'm joined by health reporters Christine Herman, who's been covering the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne, and Sebastian Martinez Valdivia at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Welcome to you both.



MARTIN: So I want to start with you, Christine. Classes started this week at the University of Illinois. What's that school's strategy?

HERMAN: So the strategy here is mandatory testing for the coronavirus. So the campus moved quickly to produce its own saliva-based test. It was actually created by faculty scientists here, and it just received FDA emergency authorization. And they're now doing more than 10,000 tests a day, and the results come back within a day. So the Urbana campus has about 40,000 students, and so far, they've found about 300 positive cases. But that's what they predicted. They say it's mostly students who arrived already infected but just didn't know. So that's the strategy, and administrators think it will clamp down on any spread - that and the fact that about 75% of classes are online.

MARTIN: Wow. That's an amazing testing regimen. How do people feel about it? I mean, when you talk to students and staff, are they OK with all this?

HERMAN: Yeah. You know, the students I talk with say they're excited to just be back on campus, and they're really glad the university is requiring this twice-a-week testing. So if they go to a class, they're not left wondering, is the person sitting next to me maybe infected and doesn't know it? So Olisa Ausara-Lasaru's a sophomore from Chicago, and she thinks this might all work out.

OLISA AUSARA-LASARU: I think we were all pretty scared that it was going to be, like, another semester of staying at home. So, I mean, I think, like, even though there are, like, online classes, like, and it's definitely, like, a different vibe, I still think it's nice to be on campus.

HERMAN: And it's not just the testing; the university is really trying to enforce this. They've got people standing at the doors, checking to make sure students entering for class have a recent negative test result. You can either show it on a printout or in an app on your phone. So you'll see students lined up on campus outside of buildings, 6 feet apart with their masks on, and the people checking are wearing these T-shirts with the letters WSA on the back - that stands for wellness support associate.

MARTIN: OK. So, Sebastian, let's turn to you. What about at the University of Missouri? What are they doing?

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: It's pretty different. Administrators here aren't doing mandated testing of all students, faculty and staff. They say it's just too expensive, and they say it would be really complicated. So you can get a test if you have symptoms, but that's it. The university's moved some classes online, but half of the classes are still happening in person. And they've tried to focus in-person classes on freshmen, so they can still have kind of that classic college experience. I met freshman Isaiah Spellman soon after his first two in-person classes, and he was pretty excited.

ISAIAH SPELLMAN: It's just the atmosphere of seeing, like, other students, too. And you can look around and give each other looks of uncertainty, like I don't know what I'm doing 'cause when I'm in my apartment, it's just kind of me staring at the screen, like, ahh (ph). But now at least I have someone to make eye contact with when I'm going through stuff.

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: But a lot of people don't like it. A lot of professors are worried about the health risks. Some professors got to decide whether to move to online teaching, but it really depends on your supervisor or your department.

MARTIN: So you wear two hats in this conversation, Sebastian, because not only are you a reporter covering all of this, you are also an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri. So what has that been like? What has teaching class been like?

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: Yeah, it's been a little strange. As a health reporter, I've been covering COVID for half a year now, so I'm very aware of the risks. I would have preferred to teach it online, like I did in the spring, when we shut down. But I didn't really have that choice. So like all professors, I was given a clear plastic face shield, and that's for accessibility, so students who need to read lips can still see my face. And my classroom isn't that big for 20 students, but we've spread out the desks as much as possible. And I'm just kind of realizing that I'll have to adjust how I teach. I'm used to really hands-on teaching, going over to students' desks, helping them with their computers. And I'm really having to do a lot of thinking on my feet now.

MARTIN: That was Sebastian Martinez Valdivia from the University of Missouri and Christine Herman at the University of Illinois. Thanks to you both.

HERMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.