By Kate McGee, Texas Tribune
Baylor University has started COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis for every student, faculty and staff member, with the help of a new lab on campus.
The weekly tests will be required — making it one of the strictest and most comprehensive COVID-19 enforcement policies among Texas colleges and universities. Those who don’t comply could face penalties.
Students won’t be able to participate in any co-curricular activities for the rest of the semester after two missed tests. If they miss three tests, they’ll also lose Wi-Fi access on campus, with the goal of limiting student activity in campus buildings. After four missed tests, students could be suspended.
Students started getting tested this week as the spring semester began Tuesday.
The decision to require testing comes as Texas continues to grapple with the worst of the pandemic. Across the state, dozens of hospitals are reporting ICU beds have reached or are close to capacity. It also comes after a Baylor graduate student who graduated in 2020 died this week due to COVID-19.
University officials said they decided to institute weekly testing because students wanted more face-to-face interaction than the fall semester and officials wanted to make sure they could accommodate the request without increasing the risk of asymptomatic spread.
“Feedback, anecdotally, this week has been positive,” said Sharra Hynes, vice president of student life at Baylor. “Students are just, ‘OK. If it allows us to do more things together, let’s just do this.'”
The university also included incentives such as restaurant vouchers and it will enter students into raffles for end-of-semester prizes.
Baylor partnered with a Dallas-based company, My Labs Direct, to build a lab on campus that can process self-administered nasal swab test results within 24 hours. Officials said they would be able to conduct up to 150,000 tests during the spring semester, processing up to 8,000 more daily tests. Officials would not share how much the multimillion-dollar lab and weekly testing cost.
The American College Health Association recommended colleges test students and employees twice a week for the spring semester and provide results in less than 48 hours. Baylor officials said they decided once a week was sufficient given other mitigation strategies, including mask requirements and social distancing.
Few universities have mandated campus testing. Most universities in Texas are simply encouraging testing among students returning to campus to take classes in-person or online.
But Rice University had already required weekly testing since the start of the academic year. Rice recently delayed the start of the spring semester by one week to Jan. 25 as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the Houston area. When students return, they will be required to get tested twice a week through at least Feb. 15. Then, they’ll continue with once a week testing after that.
Rice and Baylor are private universities.
All students, faculty and staff were also required to have a negative COVID-19 test result before returning to campus at Baylor. The university also put a moratorium on all events until Feb. 7 to mitigate any spread as they anticipate a spike in cases at the start of the spring semester, similar to the fall semester. Some 44% of classes at Baylor are in person and 44% are online this semester. The rest are hybrid.
The University of Texas at Austin also pushed all hybrid classes fully online for the first two weeks of the semester. The aim was to space out the time in which students returned to campus to try and slow down the spread of the virus.