Wastewater tests, anonymous tracking apps, and easier testing methods help colleges stay open and test pilot COVID-19 solutions for the greater good.

College Campuses Serve as Labs for COVID-19 Innovations


  • College campuses around the U.S. are advancing new COVID-19 tests and tools.
  • Schools are driven to innovate so they can avoid another outbreak and stay open.
  • Campus populations are pilot testing technology that could be adopted by states.
  • Students must abide by social distancing rules to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

Over the summer, the number of colleges planning on an in-person fall dropped by more than 10 percentage points. Now, less than a quarter of colleges tracked by The Chronicle of Higher Education will hold classes primarily or fully in person this term.

For the colleges back on campus, staying open means avoiding new coronavirus outbreaks. Many institutions are taking innovative measures to identify cases and track social interactions. At the University of Arizona, for instance, environmental science professors are testing wastewater to detect the virus. Students, meanwhile, can opt in to an app-based COVID-19-tracking system developed by a UArizona alum.

“The fall of 2020 will go down as a period of profound experimentation at colleges and universities transformed into hothouse [COVID-19] laboratories.”

Universities' experimental solutions aim to keep infection rates on campus below that of the surrounding community. If these attempts work, campus innovations could help revolutionize the global COVID-19 response.

But if colleges can't successfully contain the spread of the virus on campus, they risk having to shut down a second time. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill already met with this fate when it pushed all undergraduate instruction online just one week into its fall semester.

Colleges Contribute to the Worldwide COVID-19 Effort

Higher education has been contributing resources and brain power to COVID-19 response efforts since the beginning.

Academics at countless colleges are studying the virus and conducting research to develop a viable COVID-19 vaccine.

Once students left campuses en masse in March, dormitories and stocked food courts sat vacant. Some colleges donated their emptied dorms to local hospitals or transformed them into temporary homeless shelters. Many fed community members in need. Science labs went to work processing COVID-19 tests, and 3D printers began churning out personal protective equipment.

Other important work continues behind the scenes. Academics at countless colleges are studying the virus and conducting research to develop a viable COVID-19 vaccine. Rutgers University established the Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, a hub for these ongoing research projects.

With students back on thousands of U.S. campuses, academic innovators now have a test group. Multiple colleges are developing tracking apps and coronavirus tests, and the campus population is testing these tools' efficacy.

College Campuses Foster COVID-19 Innovations

One argument for reopening campuses during COVID-19 is that colleges breed innovation. Campuses are hotbeds for new ideas, with a young, technologically savvy population unafraid to take new approaches. Students also give schools the opportunity to try out tools for testing, tracking, and containing the coronavirus.

Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of Arizona are among the colleges conducting wastewater tests. By collecting samples from the sewage of residence halls, scientists can look for genetic evidence of the virus in feces. If COVID-19 is detected, colleges can administer tests to students in that building.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Yale University are both experimenting with testing methods that use saliva instead of nasal swabs and provide results within five hours.

Some colleges are fast-tracking their COVID-19 efforts by joining forces with organizations, tech companies, and other schools.

While some colleges independently pursue solutions, others are fast-tracking their efforts by joining forces with organizations, tech companies, and other schools. The University of Arizona's Covid Watch app was developed on a platform built by Apple and Google, and a number of institutions plan to pilot test MIT's PathCheck app.

Using GPS and bluetooth, these COVID-19-tracking apps anonymously log movement, identify when you've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, and even determine how infectious that individual was at the time contact occurred.

By tracking and notifying students of exposure, colleges are going far beyond the risk-control methods thus far adopted by local and state governments. Their efforts have even caught the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether Colleges Can Stay Open Depends On Students

A geographically and socially bound community of young people could help establish herd immunity. While allowing the coronavirus to spread unchecked remains a controversial strategy that even Dr. Anthony Fauci disavows, pursuing herd immunity within confined college populations doesn't pose the same threat.

College populations are mostly young, and most young people only exhibit mild symptoms when infected with the coronavirus. If low-risk students return to campus — and stay there should they get sick — they could help establish pockets of herd immunity.

Having low-risk students stay on campus should they get sick could help establish pockets of herd immunity.

But that's assuming that colleges can keep their herds on campus. While the learning loss and increased anxiety caused by COVID-19 closures may be more dangerous to many students than the actual disease, the same does not apply to surrounding communities. With students pouring in, some college towns are experiencing viral resurgences.

The risk of resurgence rises when students don't abide by colleges' COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Recent surveys show that many students don't expect their peers to follow the new social conduct rules, even while planning to adhere to the rules themselves.

Individual commitment is what it will take for schools to stay open and for students to stay healthy. Colleges' efforts to contain the coronavirus rely heavily on student participation, but without the dedication of students, the future of campus life remains hazy.


Feature Image: Karen Ducey / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America