College

Boston University is setting up dedicated coronavirus testing for students, staff and faculty

Key Points
  • Boston University plans to have its own coronavirus testing program this fall for students, faculty and staff as part of a larger strategy to hold in-person classes on campus.  
  • "We've spent a lot of time on trying to decide and develop testing capability within the university,"  Boston University President Robert Brown said on CNBC's "Squawk Alley." 
  • "We have the capacity to do that as a major research university," he added. 
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Boston University president Robert Brown on returning to campus in the fall

Boston University said Thursday that it plans to have its own coronavirus testing program this fall for students, faculty and staff as part of a larger strategy to hold in-person classes on campus.  

"We've spent a lot of time on trying to decide and develop testing capability within the university," Boston University President Robert Brown said on CNBC's "Squawk Alley." "We have the capacity to do that as a major research university." 

Boston University's announcement comes as colleges across the U.S. are trying to determine plans for safely conducting classes in the fall despite the Covid-19 pandemic. California State University announced plans for a mostly virtual fall semester, citing fears of a virus outbreak later in the year

In recent days, the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said they intend to start the semester earlier than planned and finish final exams by Thanksgiving. Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in a letter to the university that the changes to the academic calendar were done "in an effort to stay ahead of that second wave."  

University leaders have stressed that testing for the coronavirus and contact tracing is a critical component to safely holding in-person classes. 

Students pass by the Boston University John Hancock Student Village on the school's campus in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Keyur Khamar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Boston University has a four-phase plan to return to on-campus work, Brown told CNBC. Students returning for classes is in the third phase. 

"We're in the beginning of phase one, where our research and clinical operations will begin repopulating next week. That will give us our first test at how we're using [personal protective equipment] and social distancing and other health protocols, to keep our staff and researchers safe," he said. 

Brown said the fall semester, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 2, will be "a very different college experience for our students." He said living inside residence halls will be different, as will the way in which classes are delivered. University presidents have previously told CNBC that large in-person lectures will likely not take place

Boston University is developing "learn-from-everywhere technology" that will allow classes to be held "residentially and remotely, simultaneously," said Brown, who noted the importance of protecting older faculty and staff who are at a higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

"We're going to have to create environments where they feel comfortable in the classroom or let them teach remotely," he said. 

Brown said Boston University will use a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing program for students, staff and faculty. According to an article on the university's website, many of the details are still being finalized, including cost and the volume of tests that would need to be run. The school has about 35,000 students

The samples would be processed at a lab on campus and robots purchased by the university will help speed up the delivery of results, according to the article. 

Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University in Indiana, told CNBC last month that the school also intends to rely on its on-campus lab to help process tests. The lab was already being used to help the state government process tests, Daniels said.

Dr. Kari Stefansson, an Icelandic neurologist who was formerly a professor at Harvard University, has noted that many U.S. universities are well positioned to respond to Covid-19 outbreaks. He argued last month on CNBC that the country could be relying on them more broadly. 

"You have all of this talent, all of this equipment in your universities, that could simply be drafted to apply to this epidemic," he said. "You could have the universities do the testing. You could have the universities do the analysis of the data and help with planning how to deal with it." 

Brown said Boston University believes in finding a way to safely return students to campus because the residential academic experience has inherent value. 

"We believe from all of the data we're getting from our students, and from their parents, is that students want to continue their education and they want to continue it in the residential mode, if possible, because it's the best learning experience," he said. 

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Notre Dame opening for classes in the fall