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Most students and staff not testing themselves for Covid

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Students and higher education staff in the Netherlands don't seem too eager to take self-tests at home before going to the campus. Although these tests are now being distributed free of charge, the number of people making use of the service is underwhelming. So much so that a rapid test location in Groningen is shutting down. 

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"Self-test = not stressed" is the slogan of a new campaign from the Dutch government to convince higher education staff and students to take a Covid test at home before heading to campus.

Home testing kits can be ordered for free since May 5 at www.zelftestonderwijs.nl. The idea behind the distribution of these tests is to make in-person classes safer. Some people think they don't need to take a test if they're not experiencing any symptoms, but that's exactly who the tests are for. After all, those experiencing symptoms are advised to go straight to community health service GGD.

Generally speaking, about 789,000 students and 106,000 staff are eligible to order tests. As of Monday, May 31, a total of 213,000 students and 53,000 staff members had placed orders.

Swab
A quick guestimate thus reveals that about half of higher education staff have ordered tests, but only about a third of all students (allowing some leeway for work placements and part-time students) did the same. And that's not even the full picture: after ordering them, they have to actually use them. That means putting a swab up their nose, twirling it around, applying some drops, and then waiting for the result.

Those who ordered two or three test kits have been counted two or three times in these figures, but that is probably not so many people as, for each order, people are sent four test kits. From June 1 onwards, tey can get as many as eight test kits per order. We must also consider that students and staff are not having to go to the campus that often.

The students’ willingness to test themselves is, therefore, rather underwhelming, but that was already forecast by the project's first trials conducted in three Dutch institutions, namely the Avans University of Applied Sciences, the HAS University of Applied Sciences, and the Koning Willem I Polytechnic. In the final analysis, only 30 percent of all students participated, which corroborates more or less with the number of students who have ordered home testing kits so far.

Not mandatory
One of the reasons for such a low uptake is that testing yourself is not mandatory. Whether you test yourself or not carries no tangible consequences. Besides, most home tests are negative. Combined, these two reasons seem to reduce students' motivation to keep testing themselves regularly.

That’s what happened in Groningen, where only a quarter of all students bothered to show up at the rapid testing location. “One of the reasons they mentioned for not coming was the distance to the testing location”, according to local news outlet RTV Noord. “They were also concerned about the impact of testing positive. Students understood that they wouldn’t be able to enter the examination hall, but wondered when and how they could make up the exam.” That's why the testing location is closing.

At Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the trial will continue to run until mid-August, but “events seem to have overtaken” the pilot, given the availability of home testing kits and vaccinations, the university disclosed. “We see that willingness to be tested is lagging behind our expectations, because no immediate benefit has been attached to students getting tested.” VU Amsterdam is still observing social distancing in its classes on campus.

No protest
Dutch ministers earmarked nearly half a billion euros for home testing for higher education, including the distribution of test kits. Not a single administrator or interest group in education protested, because the money wasn’t coming out of the budget for education anyway. But no one defended the policy fully either. The push came from the government, not from educational administrators or student unions. Institutions just wanted to open their campuses again – with or without these tests.

The distribution of home testing kits turned out to be 63.5 million euros cheaper than had been forecast, according to the government’s Spring Memorandum published last week. But testing still costs over 400 million euros, while most students and obviously lots of staff don’t feel any need to get tested. From the reports of campuses and polls conducted by university newspapers, it seems that only a minority of those eligible are cooperating.

Journalists at Radboud University Nijmegen’s newspaper VOX asked students and staff members who had shown up on the recently re-opened campus if they had used one of the free home testing kits. The answer was a big “no”. One of the students approached was happy that testing was not mandatory “because I don’t want to have to stick a swab up my nose every time before I set foot on campus”, he said, laughing.

Safe
By distributing home testing kits, the government wanted to ensure that it was safe to visit campus. Naturally, a prevented infection is worth a pound of cure. But since around three-quarters of the people sitting in a lecture hall will have passed up home testing, this doesn’t look like a particularly successful policy.

The Ministry of Education set up a total of seven pilots to verify how contact on campus could be made safer, but the alarming initial outcome was ignored: ministers had already decided to distribute home-testing kits.

The final results of all the trials will not be available before July 1, the Ministry of Education reports. The eighth trial in Rotterdam didn’t get off the ground because of objections of a medical-ethical nature.

In the meantime, the vaccination campaign is steaming ahead, meaning that there is a real threat that these results will be outdated. If everything goes well, a reasonably normal academic year with much fewer restrictions will commence in September.

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