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Is Stanford ready to bring back half the undergrad student body in January?

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More than halfway into fall quarter, students, health experts and the University share a tone of cautious optimism about how Stanford is doing so far with regard to containing COVID-19, and what this might mean for winter quarter. 

To date, the University’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 45 positive tests (out of 42,750 total tests) among undergraduate and graduate students, including a recent surge among athletes that set the weekly high. Despite this, Stanford boasts a positivity rate of 0.11%, significantly lower than the 1.7% positivity rate in Santa Clara County. In comparison, schools such as Cornell (34,852 total tests last week) and UC Berkeley (44,827 total tests) have positivity rates of 0.03% and 0.53%, respectively.

Central to Stanford’s COVID-19 plan is weekly surveillance testing among undergraduate and graduate students, which supplements additional requirements including wearing face coverings, practicing physical distancing and frequent hand washing. 

“Regular surveillance testing among those who have a physical presence on campus offers a way for us to confirm that the safety protocols we have implemented are having the desired effect, and it also serves to identify and catch cases in which people may have been infected but are not symptomatic,” wrote University spokesperson E.J. Miranda, on behalf of the University and Student Affairs, in an email to The Daily. 

Yvonne Maldonado, one of Stanford’s leading coronavirus researchers and professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and population health, echoed the importance of regular testing, crediting Stanford’s system as “robust.” Both Cornell and Berkeley are testing students living in dorms twice a week.

“We need to keep doing testing to make sure that we know what’s going on in our community and keeping infected individuals out of the out of circulation so that they can’t transmit to others,” Maldonado said. 

Stanford maintains that testing rates are “good and growing” although an estimated 19% of undergrad students may have been out of compliance with the testing requirements. Results from weekly testing are updated on the University’s official COVID-19 dashboard, which notably does not include results from Stanford Health Care employees.  

Will Shan ’21, co-director of the ASSU’s COVID-19 response team, credited many factors for the low numbers, including University protocols, having fewer students on campus and a “cognizant” and “mindful” culture among students on campus. 

“I think generally the Stanford community is very cautious when it comes to COVID,” Shan said. “I’m sure that just having the limited number of undergrads and the graduate students on campus right now, it’s gone a long way as well to keep the positivity rate down.”

Maldonado also said that part of the reason for low numbers is “that we don’t have a lot of undergrads on campus right now.” She added that whether Stanford can maintain its low numbers if more students were to return to campus ultimately depends on how students behave.

“If people think they’re going to come back and just pretend there’s no virus, then the virus is going to remind them that it’s still around,” she said. “The University can do the best it can, but in the end it’s really gonna be up to every single individual to take personal responsibility for their behavior.”

The University currently plans to bring freshmen, sophomores and first-year transfer students back to campus for winter quarter, if “public health conditions and requirements allow,” Miranda wrote. 

This will undoubtedly require Stanford to scale up its current testing operations, a task Shan believes the University is “prepared to handle.” Shan also noted that a large number of graduate students are also being tested currently. 

“The process thus far has been smooth,” Shan said. “Students are getting tested [and] finding it quite quick. It’s efficient, it’s accessible, and certainly there are improvements that can be made. For example, letting students schedule recurring tests at a set time every week to help them with their schedule, but by and large, the process overall, especially around the testing has been smooth.”

Shan said that he is “hopeful” that students will be able to return, citing the success of “the small quarter,” “the accessibility of testing” and “the low positivity rate,” though he noted he does not speak on behalf of the University. 

Maldonado expressed more concern on campus reopening. She cited a gathering she recently saw on campus that was being “held outside a dorm” with a few dozen people, with “nobody wearing masks.”

“We know exactly how to stop this from spreading and to see people doing that is extremely irresponsible,” she said. “And of course, if we keep seeing that behavior, then we are going to have a problem…  There’s no way we can handle a big outbreak at the school. We saw what happened in March, it could happen again. We don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have drugs.”

In fall quarter, there have been 139 reported violations of public health rules, but the University has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to bring back students, citing “low” COVID-19 numbers. These numbers have to be taken in the context of local guidelines, however, according to Miranda. 

“While the low number of students testing positive is encouraging, the state and county public health guidance will also play an important role in our decision-making as we work toward bringing our university community back to campus safely,” Miranda wrote. 

The current Santa Clara County guidelines for institutions of higher education include mandates on testing, isolation practices, student housing, dining halls, in-person instruction and athletics. 

“It is important for all schools, from elementary schools to colleges and universities, to follow the directives and guidelines set forth by the county and state,” a Santa Clara County spokesperson wrote to The Daily in an email. “All campuses have the right to begin on-site education once safety procedures are in place and being adhered to.”

Santa Clara County also recently moved up to the orange (tier 3), on a four-tier system with tier 4 signalling “minimal” spread. This move coincided with the reopening of kindergarten and first grade in Palo Alto Unified School District elementary schools. 

Maldonado reiterated the importance of taking a “careful and cautious” approach as students return to school. Given that situations can change rapidly, she said that it is “hard to know exactly when” Stanford can make a final decision and that it might even “happen as late as after fall quarter ends.”

“This is really an important topic,” Maldonado said. “We want to see students back on campus. We would love to have people back as soon as possible. We also want to make sure that everybody’s safe. Everyone is aware that this disease tends not to be as severe in young adults, but it’s not without any risks.”

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Ujwal Srivastava '23 is from Palo Alto, Calif. He is a Science & Technology Desk Editor interested in the intersection of healthcare and technology. He is majoring in Computer Science on the Biocomputation track. Contact him at usrivastava 'at' stanforddaily.com.