For the thousands of college students sent home last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge, a safe return to campus – and to friends, independence, and in-person learning – seemed like a distant dream. The administration of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), however, was prepared to think big.
Dr. Andreas Cangellaris has served as UIUC’s Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs since 2017. In April 2020, less than a month after students’ departure from campus, Dr. Cangellaris and his colleagues began advocating for an ambitious plan to bring students back in the fall, finding a delicate balance between safety and the preservation of a normal university experience. A whirlwind of key alliances between faculty, researchers, and public health officials throughout Urbana-Champaign were formed to develop and pilot Shield, a screening program aimed at identifying and tracing cases of COVID-19 to prevent further spread.
The program’s creators were well-positioned to leverage the existing capabilities of a large research university like UIUC. “By May, the elements of the testing ecosystem were already in prototype form, and our chemists were working very closely with our teams to think about a saliva-based approach to testing,” said Cangellaris. “If it wasn’t for our Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and the ability to set up and practice the testing that was needed through their expertise and resources, I don’t know how successful we would have been able to be.”
The result was undeniably successful: a program routinely processing 10,000 tests each day. Undergraduate students were being tested 2-3 times per week, in an era where obtaining a test remained difficult throughout much of the country. During late August, Shield accounted for roughly 2% of all COVID-19 tests performed in the U.S.
Q: What motivated the development of the Shield testing program at UIUC last April?
Andreas Cangellaris (AC): It was driven by the desire to make sure that the students weren’t being kept away from the life of a residential university. As we have seen over the past year, social distancing driven by health and wellness does result in emotional and psychological stress on everyone. In particular, young people can’t afford to lose a single day of their social encounters that help them form who they are. The question we asked ourselves is, ‘what will it take to bring the students back?’ and that became very clear the moment we appointed the expert team. It was a significant investment, but I think that investment is paying off. I believe that our classrooms in Urbana-Champaign were the safest spaces in the state of Illinois, and we’re very proud of that.
Q: What were some of the challenges associated with ramping up that program?
AC: In building a program that could test as many as 12,000 people per day, the first challenge was to make sure the things we were doing were financially feasible. We’re a public university and we have limited resources, so we couldn’t afford to be administering a test that would cost $30 or $40 at that scale. In addition to testing, we needed to pilot an ecosystem where, through modeling and data analysis, we could identify potential hotspots and communicate and isolate accordingly. We took advantage of the summer months, as our student athletes came back to campus and as a number of our researchers started engaging with our lab activities, to pilot our testing ecosystem.
Of course, another important challenge was communication. How do we communicate our plans for testing and how would that testing enable our students to return to campus? If you’re a parent and you’re thinking about sending your student back to a university campus where people live and work together in close proximity, you worry it can’t be done. How do you, in careful coordination with the Illinois Public Health Department and CDC and FDA guidance, develop the talking points and facilitate those conversations?
Q: Beyond testing, what other mitigation strategies did you have in place, and how did you adapt to allow for different activities and needs?
AC: When students were on campus, they needed opportunities for social engagement in ways that were COVID-19 responsible. That is so important because, for young people, who they are and who they become are influenced by conversations that are totally unexpected and very different from the more structured classroom conversations. If students have some safe opportunities to engage socially, they become more comfortable sacrificing other less compliant activities.
In our ecosystem, we also had the ability to target populations where testing frequency needed to be considered for a variety of reasons – because of a spike developing, or because we have seen behavior that wasn’t as respectful of social distancing as we would have liked, or because of other needs and demands. We made sure that the frequency of testing was such that it allowed us to quickly identify those who were infected, isolate them and minimize the impact in terms of other infections and quarantining. Having a test that was not only low cost, but also very fast in giving results, made that possible.
Q: Were you concerned about compliance and whether students would follow the protocol? How did you deal with that?
AC: Compliance is extremely difficult, especially in an environment where people are empowered to have their freedom of choice and opinion. We also knew that compliance was essential to our success. It is part of what I believe that we, as universities, are trying to instill in people. When you think about the common good, your personal interests should take the backseat. It’s the common good you’re going after. Engaging the entire community, whether it’s a university community or another community, is really significant as you deal with crises like these. I’ve seen how influential the voices of students are as they talk to peers about changing their behavior. But people are people, so there were a few who weren’t compliant. The great thing is that the vast majority of our community was compliant. I believe that, at the end of the day, the most important thing learned through this experience is that acting in the interest of the common good is one of the best things that a human being can do. I can tell you that every person on our campus appreciates the value of that commitment to community wellness more than ever before.
Q: If there was one lesson or piece of advice that you could share with other people in your position at different universities, what would it be?
AC: It’s not a lesson, but a reaffirmation of the fact that every comprehensive university in this country has all the talent it needs to deal with crises like this. It’s incredible what we can bring to bear when the demand, the need, the pressure is on us.
This also reminds us why universities need to be embraced – even when we pursue research that seems crazy and we’re trying to pursue things that people don’t understand. Behind that ambition hides the ability to tackle a crisis in the community’s best interest. That’s what universities are able to do. We know how to make the impossible possible.