Rapid testing pilots too late to enable return to campus this spring

Rapid coronavirus tests are expected to help universities to go somewhat back to normal. Photo: Pixabay

It is possible that higher education institutions carry out some of their educational activities on campus at the end of this month, said the Dutch Prime Minister and Minister of Health in a press conference on Monday, March 8. The idea is that students would be able to get away from their laptops and have classes on campus one day a week.

In order to do this in the safest way possible, "we have to perform as many lateral flow tests (rapid tests) in advance as possible”, said De Jonge.

Taking a quick coronavirus test before you come to campus. It may sound simple, but it's not that easy in practice. Pilots (link in Dutch) were set up all across the country for good reason: they aim to find out how educational institutions would be able to provide safe classes on location.

We are still awaiting the results. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, for example, has just gotten started. “We are studying how to make teaching in the classroom more efficient, keeping in mind the 1.5-metre rule”, explained a spokesperson.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is collaborating with other institutions, such as the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, on this research. Students and staff are being tested  before they enter buildings. They're also measuring their degree of enthusiasm. The pilot is set to run until mid-August, although the first results are expected in April.

the Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, has her heart set on a partial campus reopening in the spring. “We want to do that as quickly as possible, as long as it’s safe and responsible to do so”, she told news agency ANP.

Rapid testing
Although it may sound comforting to hear that trials are being conducted in several locations across the country, this process takes time, as is the case with all research. Besides, it will be a long time before the 1.5-metre rule can be eased or lifted, so full lecture halls are not even on the horizon, even with rapid testing.

There are a total of eight pilots currently taking place at Dutch higher education institutions. The researchers should be able to share their results by the 1st of May, according to Van Engelshoven.

But how much will researchers know by that date? According to an article (link in Dutch) published by Profielen, the newspaper of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, it looks like the trial period there will not end before mid-May. After that, all the results will be collected.

Even so, Van Engelshoven is convinced that we will already have a pretty good idea by the 1st of May. The House of Representatives will “be further informed of the research findings in the course of the second quarter of the year”, wrote the minister. The second quarter of the year runs through the end of June.

These experiments aren’t as simple as they look. Looking to limit the risk of infection, the Avans University of Applied Sciences is trying to create so-called “bubbles” of students and faculty. The project is being carried out in collaboration with the HAS University of Applied Sciences and the Koning William I Institute for Vocational Training.

“Such groups change the classroom or laboratory, the students interact with more than one faculty member: how does that affect such a bubble?”, a spokesperson explained. “We’re starting with a small group, and then in about eight weeks – give or take – we expect to expand to about 2,500 students”.

At the Fontys University of Applied Sciences, they are also busy conducting trials. They are working with saliva tests and triage to see if they can stay ahead of the virus. The new testing method has to be “validated” to find out whether it works well enough. “We will be able to share the first interim results in April”, a spokesperson revealed. It’s possible that this approach could be deployed in May “on a limited scale”.

Summer holiday
In short, before the results are put together and conclusions can be drawn from the pilot studies, the summer holidays will be upon us. By then, many more people will have been vaccinated as well, which might make the outcome of the studies somewhat outdated.

Perhaps a few minor restrictions can be eased in the coming months, as the government announced yesterday. However, with or without rapid testing, this academic year is not going to go back to normal. We can only hope that things will look better come September, thanks to the vaccination programme.

But even this also raises new questions. What will we do if some students or staff members refuse to get vaccinated due to a belief in conspiracy theories or erroneous health concerns? Will they then be denied access to campus?