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University creates an innovative plan to bring students back to campus

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Posted at 3:41 PM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 15:41:57-05

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As students around the country learn behind a screen, one university hopes to model the way in bringing students back to campus safely.

Faculty and staff at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) have worked for months to design their evidence-based Return to Learn program.

“We could not quite afford to just shut everything down and say we’ll come back in a year to figure out how good things are, said Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of UC San Diego.

“My goal was not just to have a plan, but to make sure it was going to be what I called resilient or fault-tolerant because bad stuff always happens. And when bad stuff happens, plan B should go into motion automatically. We should not have to take a pause."

The multi-layered plan focuses on education, monitoring, testing, intervention, and notification tools.

Most recently, they deployed vending machines across campus that dispense free COVID-19 test kits to students, staff, and faculty. The self-administered test kits can be done within minutes; anyone who is asymptomatic is encouraged to get tested weekly.

After dropping off the kit, Khosla says students get results within 24 hours.

"We didn’t want to give anybody any reason not to get tested," said Khosla. "If you have to schedule your test every week, things fall apart.”

UC San Diego student Carlee Shulz believes the vending machines are a great idea and says using them is self-explanatory.

“I think it reduces a lot of the shame that people have around getting tested because it assumes you’re having symptoms, which isn’t true most of the time, in my experience at least," said Shulz.

Only in her first year at the school, Shulz has yet to step inside a classroom. While she personally is not eager to get back to campus, she recognizes some majors rely on in-person learning.

And because she lives with her parents, having easy access to testing gives her peace of mind.

“Sitting and knowing that you don’t have coronavirus, and like spreading it to all my elderly neighbors, is dope!” said Shulz.

In the first week, vending machines were deployed, campus labs processed over 8,000 tests.

“The second part of the strategy was surveillance. Can we predict what’s happening?” said Khosla.

To do this, the campus deployed a wastewater early detection system; samplers monitor both educational and residential buildings.

“Our people, who are extremely research-oriented and very futuristic, knew that the virus was shed in fecal matter three to five days before it affected you physically in your body," said Khosla.

So far, they've installed 150 samplers, with plans to have 200 covering the entire campus.

“Lately, it’s been detecting COVID every day in multiple samplers, because every building has a sampler but some samplers get the wastewater from multiple buildings," said Khosla.

Right now, about 6 percent of students are attending classes in-person. Anyone in a building where the virus is detected in wastewater gets a notification they may have been exposed and is encouraged to get tested.

The plan also works to normalize behaviors that help stop the spread.

“Bad behavior on the part of a human being is what allows a pandemic to propagate," says Khosla.

They have 400 student health ambassadors who reward good behaviors on campus, like giving $5 Starbucks gift cards to students who are wearing masks.

But when students violate guidelines, like having parties, they could face disciplinary action.

“As successful as our program was in terms of technology and science, in my mind, the biggest kudos for the success of this program goes to our students for exhibiting model behavior," said Khosla.

He says the COVID-19 positivity rate among students has been, and remains, lower than the community at large.

"Come fall, left to me, I would love to open back near-normal. It would not be 100 percent the same, it might be 90 percent the same, but that’s my plan," said Khosla.

While measures like the vending machines require some logistical hurdles, Khosla believes their program could be replicated at colleges nationwide.

“Anybody who thinks that we can help them in any, they should feel free to approach us. We are able, capable, and willing," said Khosla.

So that these classrooms can once again serve as hubs for innovations to help change the world.