MSU Masks

Graduate student Justin Williams walks along Grant Street through Montana State University campus on July 27, 2020.

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While many universities across the nation are requiring students to get tested for the new coronavirus before they return to campus, Montana State University isn’t one of them.

And with less than two weeks to go before students start moving into dormitories, that has some parents worried.

From California to Alabama, Cornell University to Helena’s Carroll College, a growing number of campuses are requiring students to get tested for COVID-19 before they return to campus.

The Montana University System is consulting with public health officials, and its own epidemiological and medical experts, to determine the best approach, Karen Ogden, MUS communications, wrote in response to questions Wednesday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines “explicitly do not recommend comprehensive re-entry testing for students and employees,” Ogden said.

“We are focusing our resources and effort on rapid testing for any individuals who are symptomatic, and rapid contact tracing related to positive cases,” Ogden said.

One concerned out-of-state parent whose son will be a freshman at MSU this fall contacted the Chronicle to express alarm that the Bozeman campus isn’t requiring students to have virus tests before arriving.

“Students can leave home at any hotspot USA (Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, etc.) and be welcomed on campus without any precaution other than wearing a mask — including living in a shoebox dorm room with 1 to 3 other students and sharing a public bathroom,” wrote the mother, who asked that her name not be used. “I find this shocking and deeply concerning…”

She pointed to private Carroll College, which announced Monday that its board of trustees has approved funding to test every student returning to campus this fall. Carroll is also requiring students to self-quarantine for 14 days before coming to campus.

“This is exciting news, and it will allow us to start the year with a clear picture of the COVID-19 status of all our students,” Carroll President John Cech, who formerly worked for Montana’s commissioner of higher education, said in a news release.

Yet according to the CDC guidelines: “Testing of all students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 before allowing campus entry … has not been systematically studied. It is unknown if entry testing (at colleges) provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected with implementation of other infection preventive measures (e.g., social distancing, cloth face covering, hand washing, enhanced cleaning and disinfection).

“Therefore,” the guidelines say in a bold-faced sentence, “CDC does not recommend entry testing of all returning students, faculty, and staff.”

Despite the federal guidelines, the list of universities requiring testing is expanding.

Johns Hopkins University plans to test everyone on campus two times a week, and the University of California at San Diego plans to test 65,000 students and employees monthly, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

The University of Alabama announced plans last week to test every student in its system of more than 200,000 students before they return. The University of Oklahoma will require all students living on campus to test negative before they’re allowed to move in.

Cornell University has mandated testing, with students living off campus required to schedule a test before they can enroll in classes and those living on campus required to take a test during move-in week.

Yale University, MIT and Dartmouth are requiring testing for everyone on campus, and Duke and Penn students will be tested upon their return, Forbes magazine reported.

Testing on a large scale can be costly – reports range from $5 for a saliva test to $22 to $40 for other tests. That’s one reason the California State University system will hold most classes online this fall, because testing its half-million students would have cost millions of dollars.

The Montana Board of Regents, which oversees the entire University System, voted Tuesday to approve a return-to-school plan. It includes a requirement that students and employees wear face masks in most indoor settings. Until last week, masks were going to be recommended, not required.

The regents did not discuss virus testing, or whether to require testing for up to 40,000 students before they arrive on state campuses.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of higher education and the man leading the Montana University System’s Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force, mentioned to the regents that the task force is looking into testing that’s voluntary.

“We’re still finalizing plans there,” Tessman said. Under the current trajectory, he said, “folks who want to get tested are going to be able to receive COVID-19 tests.”

Gov. Steve Bullock and MSU President Waded Cruzado held a press conference last week to announce that the Bozeman campus will begin processing COVID-19 tests, up to 500 per day, to help overcome the Montana’s testing backlog and delays.

MSU’s test processing is intended to get test results back to Montanans faster, and isn’t targeted at students or intended to make testing a requirement for students.

MSU’s Roadmap for Fall 2020 says, “Due to the number of tests available, current national and regional guidance does not call for, or provide, testing for everyone with symptoms.”

It adds: “As the number of available test kits and processing capacity expand, this guidance could be modified. Additionally, there are ongoing local and state efforts to expand testing as fall 2020 approaches.”

The MSU Roadmap says the Bozeman campus will “support the monitoring, testing and tracing efforts, as well as quarantine and isolation protocols” advised by the CDC, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, and Gallatin City-County Health Department.

The CDC guidelines say that in some settings, broader testing for COVID-19 is recommended. In institutions of higher education, they said, “residence halls, laboratory facilities, and lecture rooms may be settings with the potential for rapid and pervasive spread” of the virus.

While the CDC doesn’t recommend testing all students, because it’s an unproven strategy, it noted that some colleges are planning to use it. They should take into account, the CDC said, whether the test is acceptable to people, the limited resources available for testing, and “limited usefulness” of a single test that can miss an early stage of infection.

In areas with “moderate to substantial community transmission” local health officials and colleges “may consider testing some or all asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff who have no known exposure” to identify outbreaks and inform control measures.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.