“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.”