This week hundreds of universities across America are starting up their Fall semesters. Has there ever been a more challenging time to begin a semester? Maybe during the World Wars? Economic forecasts are dire. Protests continue in many places across the country in response to police actions. And then we have covid.

Back in the innocent days of March when the University of Illinois moved to online instruction in response to the virus, I figured we’d have to do this for the rest of the semester, and then we’d spend the summer just laying low waiting for this whole thing to run its course. Ah, the misplaced optimism of those times. We have more daily cases now than we did then. And so we begin another semester of online instruction.

Now while I personally hate online instruction, I have to give major props to my university. They made a plan to keep everyone safe and are sticking to it. Step 1 is testing. The university has 40 testing locations. These appear to mostly be outdoor gazebos, so that people aren’t all lining up in some cramped hallway or room where they could pass on infections. Here’s a pic of one I took yesterday.

The closest one is a 5 minute walk from my house. I did my first test on Monday, and it wasn’t too bad. The line was longer than in this pic (I had to wait 12 minutes), but that was the first day. I’ll figure out when the busy times are in the future and avoid them. The actual test is just a spit test, but it requires more saliva than you would guess. Most of the wait is people standing in the tent waiting for the saliva to build up in their mouths so that they can reach the required level of spit. It’s actually pretty awkward standing there waiting for your spit to replenish. I had anticipated that and tried not to swallow as I stood in line, but even then it wasn’t enough spit.

Once I’d completed the test, the University sent me my results via the Safer Illinois app they’ve developed. As of two days ago, I do not have Covid. Al-7amdullilah.

So far so good, right? Lots of testing locations, an easy test, results back within 24 hours. I feel like everyone would agree on these points. What sets UIUC apart is that they’re being much more prescriptive about testing. All students are required to take 2 covid tests per week to remain in good academic standing. And to enter any building on campus, you have to show a door warden that you have a negative result within the last 3 days. You use the App for that. So for example, yesterday I had to drop by the Department Mail Room, and so I just showed this to the door warden:

I will say that it is pretty comforting knowing that every single person in a building has also tested negative for the virus. The app also does exposure notifications based on your phone’s location history, which I suppose helps with stuff like contact tracing. This sentence is probably setting off alarm bells with many people. We’re letting some entity track our movements?? Notwithstanding the fact that tech companies are already doing this, I see why many would find this concerning. For my part, I consider UIUC a benevolent enough organization to assuage any fears I have about sharing my location with them. For the record, you can turn location history off with Safer Illinois, but I want to be as helpful as possible for those who are using this data to try combat the spread of this disease.

So where are we at? We have a community of 50k+ students who are all getting tested twice per week, are required to wear face masks on campus, and are not allowed access to buildings without a negative covid test within 3 days. This is coupled with the fact that most classes are online anyway. If this can’t beat this virus, nothing can.

But is it scalable? Is it a good model that the broader U.S. could use in overcoming this pandemic? I would say it both is and it isn’t. Mandatory testing (provided there were enough tests), covering up, and indoor access restrictions wouldn’t hurt from a public health standpoint, but it would challenge a very strong libertarian streak in this country. If people are already protesting about wearing masks, I can only imagine the furor about mandatory testing. So I don’t see it happening any time soon.

That being said, I am proud of my university for being so proactive in fighting this virus, and taking our health so seriously. I am sure the data they are gathering will be incredibly useful. In the social sciences we are always forced to take smaller samples of a bigger population. With this app, they have the entire population (in this case the student body is the population). They are being pretty transparent with the data too. You can see the results of all the testing, if not quite in real time. As of the time of writing, they have performed more than 100k tests. We’ll be able to see how effective these measures are moving forward, but as of now I am cautiously optimistic.

Update (5/21/2021):

It is interesting to read this post 9 months later and assess how the university did. Right now (knock wood) the threat of covid seems to be diminishing each day. In the United States, the number of new cases keeps falling and the number of vaccinations rising (I am one of those fully vaccinated people). As of today, the university ended up conducting a whopping 2 million covid tests, and recorded about 7,000 positive cases. The positivity rate ended up being less than half a percent per number of tests, which seems low. More troubling, of course, is that (possibly counting people who got Covid multiple times) nearly 7,000 students, teachers, and employees ended up getting covid. That’s somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 percent. I’m not sure how much worse things would have been without the mandatory testing, mask requirements, virtual classes, and restricted campus access, but I feel like the university acted very responsibly in the wake of the pandemic. They were also pretty lenient on the students in terms of allowing later drop deadline dates and more pass/fail options. I personally benefited from some emergency grant money that the university distributed to graduate students in the wake of the pandemic, so I appreciated that help. We will see what the Fall semester looks like. It looks like the university is going to require vaccinations for students to return to in-person instruction, which seems like a sensible option.