AMES — What should have been a familiar and festive August scene of students unloading belongings into dorm rooms and meeting new roommates was anything but Monday on the Iowa State University campus where they had to start their new academic year — and in some cases their college experience — by submitting to an uncomfortable nasal swab.
This year’s ISU residence hall check-in included, for the first time, a symptom screen, temperature check and nasal test for COVID-19, with results expected within 24 hours.
“Then they get their keys at the end of the process and go move in,” said Erin Baldwin, interim senior vice president for student affairs and associate vice president of student health and wellness.
About 9,300 ISU students will move into campus housing over the next two weeks before the first day of classes Aug. 17. The extended move-in aims to tamp down crowds to support social distancing, among the many measures all three of Iowa’s public universities are employing this fall to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Among the state’s regent universities, only ISU is requiring COVID-19 testing before students can move into the residence halls. So far in the earliest round of coronavirus testing, ISU identified three positive cases and followed new protocols to isolate them.
The campus has reserved residence hall space for isolating positive cases and quarantining individuals who’ve had contact with confirmed cases. Although positive students also are allowed to isolate at home, some already are in an ISU isolation hall, according to Pete Englin, associate vice president for campus life and director of residence.
He said ISU’s goal in testing all students is to get ahead of any concerns, destigmatize positive cases and shower students with support.
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“Obviously folks who come in now and get tested are likely asymptomatic — they don’t know that they have COVID-19,” Englin said. “That’s one of the challenges around this.”
Among the other changes ISU is making in its residence halls this semester — along with the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa — is limited bedroom occupancy, extra sanitation efforts and mandatory face masks for students outside their dorm rooms.
In addition to the initial test required for residence hall residents, ISU is making available COVID-19 tests to students, faculty and staff who over the semester develop symptoms.
The UI and UNI similarly are offering testing to those with symptoms or concerning contacts. But UI officials Monday explained their decision not to require testing before allowing students to move in to dorms.
“As we prepare to return to campus, some students and families have asked if the University of Iowa will require students to be tested for COVID-19 before moving into the residence halls,” according to a UI campus communication. “We recognize this may provide some comfort for families, but it is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the following reasons.”
First, according to UI officials, one-time testing provides just a snapshot “and can miss cases in the early stages of infection, giving students a false sense of security.” One-time testing also requires “significant resources, including trained staff to conduct the tests, personal protective equipment, and physical space for conducting testing safely and ensuring privacy.”
Thirdly, poorly administered mass testing can lead to damaged or inconclusive results and “excessive false negatives,” according to the university.
But ISU freshman Andrew Hart, 18, said he’s amenable to the Ames university’s approach.
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“I think they probably should end up doing that,” he said. “Because you never know.”
Hart will live in a single room this semester that shares a bathroom with a roommate. He just minutes earlier had met his roommate and said he isn’t too worried about his safety on campus. With at least one of his classes fully online, and others still up in the air, Hart said he’s happy for a shot at some in-person instruction this fall.
“Things can change. Maybe they will,” he said. “But I’m glad they’re trying it.”
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