K-State, KU take different avenues on COVID-19 testing of students

By: and - August 7, 2020 1:15 pm
Brianna Ibarra, a Shawnee freshman at the University of Kansas, said Friday she willingly participated in the mandatory COVID-19 testing of students as the campus prepares for opening of fall semester classes. Her father, George, helped with her belongings outside a KU residence hall. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Brianna Ibarra, a Shawnee freshman at the University of Kansas, said Friday she willingly participated in the mandatory COVID-19 testing of students as the campus prepares for opening of fall semester classes. Her father, George, helped with her belongings outside a KU residence hall. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

MANHATTAN – Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, the state’s largest public universities, will greet 50,000 students returning to their campuses with diverging COVID-19 testing strategies.

KU decided to mandate every student take a test for coronavirus at outset of fall semester classes. This blanket policy is an attempt to restrain spread of the virus by enabling the temporary isolation of everyone who tests positive.

The plan at Kansas State is to concentrate testing at locations of heavy student interaction, such as residence halls. The intent is to compile testing data so health professionals better understand unfolding outbreaks. This is a targeted approach that reflects U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that don’t advise testing of entire populations.

“The CDC does not recommend testing of asymptomatic folks,” said Kansas State President Richard Myers.

KU Chancellor Doug Girod said testing prior to start of the semester would be compulsory for all students, faculty and staff on the main campus in Lawrence and the Edwards campus in Johnson County.

“An important part of a successful fall semester is helping to keep our KU and Lawrence community safe by minimizing exposures to the COVID-19 virus,” said Girod, who is a physician. “One way to do this is to identify those among us who have the infection, even without symptoms, as we all return to campus.”

The non-invasive saliva test deployed by KU will be available free of charge. This testing process began Friday as students moved into residence halls in Lawrence.

“I just got tested,” said freshman Brianna Ibarra, who had help from her dad, George, while moving belongings into a dormitory. She said it was exciting to launch her college career at KU, but was enrolled in fall semester courses that didn’t have in-person instruction. “All my classes are online.”

Emporia State University was the only other university in the Kansas Board of Regents system to offer mass testing for on-campus students and faculty.

Questions about constitutionality of a COVID-19 testing mandate on students haven’t been formally answered. The office of Attorney General Derek Schmidt declined to comment on legal issues pertaining to imposition of the testing requirement at KU. In the past, Schmidt objected to attempts by state and local health departments to engage in contact tracing of potentially infected Kansans. The 2020 Legislature passed a bill at Schmidt’s urging that made contact tracing voluntary.

Gov. Laura Kelly, who visited Kansas State’s campus on Thursday, said she didn’t have concern about KU’s testing program for students, faculty and staff. She said there were limits to what testing would tell public health analysts.

“The problem with mandating tests is that you give the test on Tuesday, the results may be different if you gave that test Wednesday. Where do you stop?” the governor said.


No absolutes

Erin Sorrell, an assistant research professor of microbiology and immunology and a member of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, said there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all blueprint for relaunching in-person instruction at colleges and universities across the nation.

“There isn’t one right answer to this reopening question,” she said. “Some universities are in larger cities. Others are in much more rural areas with smaller communities around them. Some have larger populations. We have to be conscious of the factors that influence each school community differently.”

Implementation of a consistent testing program is one key to a safe reintegration of students, faculty and staff, Sorrell said.

“Ideally, you test students and faculty when they come on to campus and then, within a randomized schedule, you test subsets of the population, specifically those that might be at higher risk,” Sorrell said.

Despite varied case counts in Kansas’ 105 counties, the universities in the Board of Regents system have all taken coronavirus-related steps to adjust campus housing, class schedules and classroom spaces to mitigate anticipated health risks. For some, the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 was too substantial to enroll this fall or significant enough to take part in courses offered online.

The mask requirement at KU and the generally accepted idea of frequent hand washing and social distancing at a range of six feet cannot protect everyone from the virus, Sorrell said.

“I don’t think there is an environment that is zero risk,” she said. “Pandemic or not, people become ill. They catch colds. They interact while they are on campus frequently.”


Student, faculty vibe

Grant Daily, the student body vice president at KU, said administrators who devoted much of the summer to prepare for the fall opening had gone the extra mile in terms of dealing with an unpredictable virus.

He said KU student feedback had been largely positive, but his peers pointed to several lingering issues. He said there were unresolved questions about what coursework options were available to students who test positive for COVID-19. There is apprehension about the availability of student housing if the campus had to be shut down in wake of a major outbreak, he said.

“The majority of people I’ve talked to want to be back on campus,” Daily said, “but they want to be back under the right conditions.”

KU law student Trey Duran was more skeptical of the university’s preparations for the fall. Beyond the testing mandate, KU is interested in performing contact tracing once someone tests positive.

“There are a lot of concerns about equity for all campus communities, about contact tracing, about privacy, that still needs answering. Better communication with students from the university would go a long way,” Duran said.

Mindy Markham, the Faculty Senate president at Kansas State, said the administration regularly involved faculty in development of the reopening plan.

“It’s challenging because there are so many variables,” Markham said, “but they have been responsive to our concerns over health and safety thus far.”


Altered calendars

Classes resume at Kansas State and at KU in mid-to-late August and follow a calendar that calls for an end to in-person class sessions prior to the Thanksgiving break in November. The final days of classes and the final exams in December are to be conducted online. That means students won’t personally be in classrooms at KU and KSU again until the spring semester in January.

Other Board of Regents universities, including Pittsburg State, Wichita State, Washburn and Emporia State, intend to follow a similar process.

Fort Hays State University plans to execute a regular academic calendar this fall, said Scott Cason, a spokesman for the university. The plan recognizes Fort Hays is among the state system’s smaller universities in terms of enrollment and that most of the students are from Kansas, he said.

“Our community has been supportive and understanding that there are a lot of things we may not have answers to right away,” Cason said. “We have asked each department to submit fairly detailed plans on health and safety. What we cannot control is the pandemic kicking back up again.”

Pittsburg State University closed their residence halls to all but students without a permanent U.S. residence. Officials at Emporia State University, KU and Kansas State decided to keep dormitories open.


Aggieville as hotspot?

Myers, a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force and the 15th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he receives medical care at Walter Reed facilities in Bethesda, Maryland. The flow of humanity through the military complex on any given day rivals that of a college campus.

“Thousands of people go in that facility every day. Lot of them go in sick,” he said. “They wear masks, wash hands and maintain social distancing. Everybody obeys and does it.”

In terms of Kansas State, he said, that spirit of cooperation is needed for the university to function during COVID-19.

“Can it be done? Yes. The biggest fear is not campus. Campus is going to be fine. The biggest fear is what they’re going to do off campus,” he said.

Kelly said the challenges faced by Myers, Girod and other administrators at state universities to prepare for in-person classes amid COVID-19 were profound. It’s more than opening a business in the morning and monitoring the front door to make certain folks wear a mask, she said.

“This is opening up an entire community,” the governor said. “It’s a daunting task to say the least. I appreciate the efforts that our universities have put in to try to do this as safely, cautiously and wisely as possible. It’s going to take a lot of cooperation.

“You know that bringing people together in one setting is where spread happens. There’s no two ways about it. We’ve got bars, restaurants here and this age group is going to want to congregate. We have to count on them to do their part to make it possible for us to keep these universities open.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.