COVID-19: UCSD to Initiate “Return to Learn” Program; Mass COVID-19 Testing to Begin

This article was cowritten by UCSD Guardian Editor-in-Chief Daisy Scott and News Editor Jacob Sutherland, is a part of our news series on the COVID-19 pandemic. For information on how to prevent the spread of the virus, click here.

Chancellor Khosla announced in a May 5 email that UC San Diego will begin mass testing students for novel coronavirus as part of efforts taken toward students returning to campus. This testing is part of a larger program called “Return to Learn,” and will begin its first phase on May 11 by making testing available to over 5,000 students who currently reside on the UC San Diego campus.

The testing will involve students obtaining nasal swabs from designated on-campus locations, using a barcode to identify the swab as their own, self-swab their nose, and return the test sample at drop-box locations. The university anticipates that the approximately 65,000 students, faculty, and staff will all be able to self-test on a monthly basis as early as September, 2020.

According to the statement, “Return to Learn” consists of five long-term components:

  • Risk Assessment and Mitigation: The university administration will implement a variety of changes to campus culture to mitigate any potential transmission of the virus, including “optimal class sizes and density, the scope and structure for co-curricular activities, and appropriate personal behaviors, like physical distancing and the use of face coverings.”
  • Proactive Vigilance: UCSD scientists have worked with the administration to develop mathematical models for virus management. According to the models, if 60 to 90 percent of the on-campus population is tested, the university estimates that they “have a greater than 90 percent chance of detecting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 when fewer than 10 persons among tens of thousands are actively, but unknowingly, shedding viral particles.”
  • Rapid Response: When or if an individual does test positive for COVID-19, university public health team members will reach out to them, as well as any other they may have come in contact with before being tested. The university email states that they will be working alongside “state and local public health officials in all our responses.” 
  • Technological Tools: The program will also include studies that look for viral RNA from “residential wastewater and surface collections,” as it is believed that the disease may be more infectious before symptoms occur. This knowledge will help the university to better monitor the spread of the virus.
  • Big Picture: The program at large is designed to “identify clusters of individuals shedding virus or those at greater risk in specific locations.” This will allow for faster treatment, as well as quicker interventions and refinements within the program. Ultimately, UCSD aims to lessen the chances of outbreaks on campus through this mass testing and early detection system. 

Khosla stated in the announcement that while the program is unprecedented for the university, it could serve as a model for other schools around the country if proven successful.

“The UC San Diego Return to Learn Program represents higher education at its finest, and if successful, the program can help UC San Diego and similar institutions to do what we do best: teach, conduct leading-edge research, and provide service to our communities,” Khosla wrote.

Students are encouraged to continue practicing social-distancing to limit any potential contact with the virus.

This is a breaking story, and The UCSD Guardian has contacted the university for further comment. The article will be updated with any further developments.

This article was updated at 4:06 p.m. to include details on the testing procedure.