With the start of its spring semester last month, Washington State University has bulked up its COVID-19 testing and monitoring programs and aims to phase in more on-campus activity.

As part of a “four-pronged” approach, WSU Spokesman Phil Weiler said the university has required every student returning to Pullman to take a COVID-19 test on arrival, whether they live on campus or not.

“We conducted more than 8,000 tests (and) we had less than a 1 percent positivity rate, which is great news,” Weiler said. “We also asked all students to take what we called the 10 Day Challenge — the first 10 days they were back in Pullman, we asked them to really self isolate to make sure that they weren’t ill as they were coming to town.”

Weiler said WSU created a smartphone app which students were asked to download to help monitor their adherence to safety measures. Students must complete arrival testing and a daily attestation that they are not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms before the app will award them a green checkmark needed to access buildings on campus.

Weiler said the other prongs of WSU’s monitoring program includes surveillance testing for random portions of the campus population, targeted wastewater tests of some WSU facilities including student housing and readily available diagnostic tests for anyone experiencing symptoms.

Weiler said WSU will cover the cost of testing for students, faculty and staff like it did during the fall semester in an effort to make access to COVID-19 testing as simple as possible.

“We are still operating under the assumption that we’re going to be able to get reimbursement although I don’t think that has been guaranteed,” Weiler said. “But I think it’s looking positive that the university hopefully is going to be able to be reimbursed for wastewater screening (and) for the COVID tests that we’re offering at no charge to the individual.”

After evaluating infection trends of the fall semester, Weiler said WSU found that health and safety protocols implemented by the university largely worked. While case numbers did spike initially when students returned to Pullman in August, those numbers fell dramatically by November and did not result in a corresponding spike in the surrounding community. He said the university was also able to ascertain that there was little to no transmission of the virus caused by campus activities like classes or on-campus living arrangements.

Weiler said WSU increased the number of face-to-face classes offered on campus from about 30 in the fall to around 60 in the spring. He said these mostly are classes that would be difficult if not impossible to conduct virtually, like labs that utilize special equipment.

Weiler said WSU will also reintroduce some on-campus activities like those associated with student organizations as a means of promoting safe, socially distanced options for interaction. Last fall, Weiler said many such activities were limited to virtual experiences only.

He said students made it clear that attending WSU in the fall was at times “a pretty isolating experience.” In an effort to combat this feeling of isolation, he said the school will work to give students access to more on campus buildings, so they have an option to study in a less secluded environment while still observing safety protocols.

“Frankly, (we’re) worried about the impacts on students’ mental health (and) on their academic success,” he said. “Given that we did see people following the health protocols and these protocols worked (last semester), we’re looking at a phased approach to slowly reopening campus here during the spring semester.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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