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How historically Black colleges are leading the charge with testing to open campuses

The president of Delaware State University explains how a rigorous testing model and other procedures will help students safely return to campus this fall.
/ Source: TODAY

Delaware State University is hoping its new COVID-19 testing model, which includes regular testing and a "quarantine dorm," can serve as an example to other universities about how to safely reopen campus this fall.

The school, whose on-campus classes are scheduled to start on Aug. 25, is working with the new nonprofit Testing for America to provide regular coronavirus tests for students, faculty members and school personnel that return results in 24 to 34 hours. Testing will be free to all students and faculty.

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Delaware State also will have a "quarantine dorm" where students who test positive will live while receiving meals, medical care and continuing their academics.

The aim is to have the plan implemented at 10 other historically Black colleges and universities across the country using funds earmarked from the CARES Act passed by Congress in March, according to The News Journal. The issue is particularly acute for HBCUs like Delaware State amid the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the Black community and other communities of color, but officials feel it can serve as a prototype for any university.

"Positively, this will be the model," Dr. Joan Coker, a member of the Testing for America advisory council, told Craig Melvin on the 3rd hour of TODAY Tuesday.

"So not only do we have a seat at the table as HBCUs, but we may be able to set the table in this circumstance. Set precedent."

Dr. Tony Allen, the president of Delaware State, believes it's imperative to have students back on campus at a time when schools of all levels across the country are wrestling with whether to return to in-person learning.

"COVID is also affecting communities of color and our students, and we think it's very important to protect their safety and also make sure that we can continue their continuity of education so they can get to the finish line," Allen said on TODAY.

"It was important that we created an opening plan that had the basics of science with Testing for America and the testing protocol at the heart of it, and it extended all the things we know will keep us safe and our university community safe throughout the fall semester, so Testing for America has been critically important to us in that regard."

Students will be tested before they come to campus and then will be tested when they arrive at school. Faculty, staff and students will then be regularly tested throughout the semester, according to Allen.

There also will be other safety procedures, including a residence hall that will temporarily house students who have tested positive for COVID-19 at a school that has just under 5,000 students. Students will remain in the dorm for 14 days until they test negative.

"We'll make sure that the contact tracing will tell us about anybody else who's been exposed on campus, so both those who have tested positive and those we know need to be isolated will be in that dormitory," Allen said.

The protocol was designed by Dr. Blythe Adamson, an epidemiologist and former White House coronavirus task force member who helped design the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, that has helped the league restart its season.

"What TFA has told us is testing is necessary, but not sufficient, so you'll notice that we also have a robust contact tracing strategy as well as quarantine," Allen said. "We actually have a residence hall that is specifically for quarantine and obviously all the other protocols. We have mandatory mask wearing as well as daily screenings and the like."

TFA will help partner the HBCUs with testing vendors, manage the overall plan and bring in philanthropic funding to pay for the testing. The quick turnaround in test results will also be crucial.

"The science has made incredible strides," Coker said. "At this point we know the full genealogy of the virus, therefore we'll do gene sequencing of the virus, so it's a simple yes or no. As such, we'll be able to sequence very quickly. We're hopeful to ramp up to tens of thousands of tests per day, and most of our vendors are even hopeful that we may be able to get up to 100,000 tests per day. It's amazing."

Coker also addressed the question of their test results getting turned around quickly while many people across the country are still waiting days and even more than a week to find out if they have tested positive.

"It's not new technology, it's just an upgrade to the technology," she said. "We don't have anything that no one else has, but what we do have is the need to want to make it better, and we will do that. The strategy is in place, the science is available to anyone who seeks it, you just have to seek it, and Testing for America has done that. And so the vendors are ready to go, and we're ready to roll with them."