Feb 15 2021

What It Takes To Manage COVID-19 Testing in Higher Ed

At colleges and universities across the country, IT departments are working behind the scenes to support successful COVID-19 testing efforts.

Like technology workers in virtually every industry, IT professionals in higher education were slammed by the pandemic. Nearly overnight, they needed to stand up new systems for expanded remote learning options and respond to a deluge of new help requests coming from all corners of their institutions.

At the same time, higher ed IT shops faced an additional challenge: rolling out tools and systems to support the COVID-19 testing programs that have been the key to keeping campus life as safe — and “normal” — as possible.

“It was quick,” says Jen Chavez, deputy CIO at the University of Wyoming. “Everybody needed it yesterday. What benefited our university is that our IT division has a strong partnership with the rest of the institution, so we were actively at the table from the beginning of discussions about how the university was going to respond to the pandemic.”

The University of Wyoming has a particularly rigorous testing program, with on-campus students and employees required to test regularly. Between the start of the fall semester and Thanksgiving, the university averaged nearly 10,000 tests per week. That required the IT division to stand up a new laboratory information management system, create reporting dashboards and manage electronic bookings.

At colleges and universities across the country, IT shops have implemented and managed similar systems to support COVID-19 testing on campus, often using tech tools they already had available. “Technology professionals have been critical to testing and contact tracing on campuses,” says Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. “There’s the process of notifying people of their results, there’s the process of tracking the students. People don’t understand how complex this is. There are so many issues, and if you don’t have a tracking system that is really glitch-free, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Rolling Out COVID-19 Testing Systems On Campus

The University of Wyoming used Microsoft Bookings to schedule tests for students and employees. IT professionals combined Oracle Analytics Cloud and an open-source solution for analytics and reporting. They also set up a “COVIDPass” system for symptom tracking and testing compliance, using four Windows 2019 servers, two web servers and SQL Server 2019 Express database and development servers. These systems have been instrumental in limiting the spread of the virus at the university, Chavez says.

“I do believe the testing we’ve been doing has allowed us to minimize spread,” she says. “For example, our testing allowed us to proactively isolate some of our athletic teams and to proactively identify in our law college that we needed to go remote and hold courses online for two weeks to mitigate risks. It seems that those interventions were effective, and they were due to the data we provided.”

MORE ON EDTECH: See how data analytics can help campuses reopen safely.

At the University of Minnesota, tech workers helped provide connectivity and iPad devices at a two-day community testing event where 4,000 people received COVID tests. The university also facilitated a saliva mail-in testing program, which included assigning codes to more than 62,000 students and around 27,000 employees using existing tools. Through an initiative with the state of Minnesota, the university was able to track statewide testing capacity using the data analytics platform Tableau.

Colby Reese, Director of Health Sciences Technology, University of Minnesota
The pandemic has been terrible in so many ways. But from an IT perspective, it has really accelerated the adoption of things that we’ll continue to use in the future. We’re going to come out the other side of this better, I hope.”

Colby Reese Director of Health Sciences Technology, University of Minnesota

“It’s definitely been a challenge, but this has also really allowed us to collaborate throughout the university,” says Barbara Smith, development and i­ntegrations manager at the university. “Everybody is really interested and motivated to pitch in. Our day-to-day users are very understanding and more than willing to defer because they realize the importance of this.”

At the University of South Carolina, officials first tried simply to roll out testing to as many students as possible. However, as the national picture worsened during the fall semester, university leaders decided to require testing for students returning to campus for the spring semester. Standard nasal testing is handled through the university’s existing student health systems, but the IT department needed to stand up a new portal to manage data from a saliva testing program. “That’s when we really got mobilized,” says Doug Foster, the university’s CIO and vice president for IT. “There was no place for that testing
data to go.”

Using Amazon Web Services infrastructure for code development, the university created a portal that de-identified testing data until it was transmitted to HIPAA-compliant student health records.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to protect student data when using online and emerging tech.

Early COVID-19 Outbreak Detection In Universities

An innovative warning system developed by two researchers at the University of Virginia has become a critical factor in helping to keep students on campus.

The system, developed by environmental engineer Lisa Colosi-Peterson and molecular epidemiologist Amy Mathers, uses wastewater testing from the university’s residence halls to detect COVID-19 infections before students even report symptoms.

“We’ve selected the highest-risk dorms where there are shared bathrooms, and we test the wastewater every day,” Mathers told Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction podcast. “If we see a new spike in the number of RNA particles that we’re finding in the wastewater, we’ve gone in and tested all the occupants in that building. We’ve found asymptomatic positives, and we’ve pulled them out and put them into isolation, and we haven’t had any large dormitory outbreaks.”

Mathers said she is confident that the system is sensitive enough to detect the coronavirus even if only 1 in 100 residents is infected. “If we see a signal, we get in there and we test everybody straightaway,” she said.

MORE ON EDTECH: See which social distancing tech is helping campuses reopen.

A Silver Lining: The Pandemic Strengthens IT Teams

Higher education tech leaders say the new partnerships and systems that have emerged during the pandemic are likely to have a positive impact on their institutions for years to come. Foster notes that the University of South Carolina outfitted more than 400 classrooms with new gear to enable remote instruction, including webcams, pan-tilt-zoom cameras and microphones from vendors such as Logitech and ClearOne.

“From an educational technology perspective, it was both a blessing and a curse,” Foster says. “People were working ridiculous hours, and some of our tech team members were out there running around helping people get their tests done at outdoor testing events. But also, the university as a whole — the president, executives, our board — all recognized suddenly, ‘Wow, technology really underpins everything we do.’ The IT organization got elevated in that process. And for instructors who hadn’t previously used technology in the classroom, they were all forced to do so, and they experienced some things that could help them going forward.”

“The pandemic has been terrible in so many ways,” says Colby Reese, director of health sciences technology at the University of Minnesota. “But from an IT perspective, it has really accelerated the adoption of things that we’ll continue to use in the future. We’re going to come out the other side of this better, I hope.”

Chavez says this experience has shown her how adaptive and resilient her organization is. “Technology changes every day, and it’s important to have strong IT organizations and partnerships with the rest of campus to be able to adapt,” she says. “Even though we’re tired, what we were able to achieve for the institution without any additional IT resources was pretty impressive. That sets our strategy for the future: You figure out your priorities, and then you deliver.” 

Jing Jing Tsong/Theispot