When James Madison University began the 2020-21 school year in August, the recommendation at the time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was to not test people without symptoms for COVID-19, out of concern for the number of tests and resources available.
As a result, students from all over the country and the world flooded the campus and began attending classes, sleeping in dorms and socializing, albeit while trying to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing. The result was a surge in cases and quickly. JMU sent students home for a month, and when they came back, surveillance testing began — a strata of about 5% of students from each dorm were randomly selected for rapid testing that would reveal a positive COVID-19 diagnosis within 15 minutes, and therefore help stop the spread of the virus.
The testing worked, and since the return of students in October, including their return for the spring semester, daily and weekly COVID-19 cases have remained low. Testing also included entry testing for all students living on campus at the end of January. More than 2,000 tests were completed over a three-day period.
All of this testing takes a lot of coordination and a whole team of people to communicate with students, the administration and the Virginia Department of Health. The head of that team is Carson Lonett, coordinator of student activities and involvement, and what it takes is a lot of collaboration from many departments across the university.
When students returned to campus, JMU sought a third-party distributor of COVID-19 tests, the same company used by Virginia Tech. Lonett has also been working with health officials and peers across the state to coordinate testing.
There is a team of seven people including Lonett who work full time to coordinate testing. Then there are 12 employees of the third-party testing distributor, and three JMU volunteers who have been trained through the University Health Center to administer the surveillance testing.
Rebeca Barge, the associate director for the Center for Multicultural Student Services, received an email a few weeks before students were set to arrive back on campus asking for volunteers to be greeters, answer questions and ensure that entry level testing went smoothly for students.
Through her connection with colleagues in student services, Barge knew this operation was going to rely on volunteers stepping up. She also knew it would be a great opportunity to connect with students.
"It was a really fun experience overall," Barge said. "It was so well organized and colleagues from so many departments came together to put this together."
Prior to her volunteer shift, which was about five hours on the afternoon of Jan. 29, Barge received training materials. They included everything from where to park, safety precautions taking place at the Convocation Center, where testing was being completed, to a step-by-step process of what would be required on the day Barge volunteered.
Barge was at the very front station and the person who greeted students as they arrived for their appointments. Students were told to have their student ID ready, as well as the testing app that would check them in and share results with them once their test came back.
For the most part, students were prepared when they arrived and check-in could take as little as 15 seconds, Barge said. She would then give the students a nametag that also included their JMU student ID and phone number and direct them to the next station for testing.
Although Barge signed up to be a volunteer to help out her colleagues and university, she walked away with so much energy from the students, she said.
"I was thankful to be placed at check-in," she said. "I loved seeing students walk through the door and be able to greet them and make them feel like they were in the right place, and make the process as smooth and simple as possible."
Each week, about 450 students are randomly tested over the course of one day and about six hours. Last semester, it was 300 students a week, but JMU was able to up its testing capabilities this semester.
In addition to surveillance testing, JMU is now offering testing to off-campus students if they want it.
"I'm very proud of the whole team for the entire process," Lonett said. "It takes a lot of communication and answering questions."
According to JMU's COVID-19 dashboard, there have been 127 cases since Jan. 4 as of Tuesday, and there are 26 active cases. There were 11 positive test results at the University Health Center on Monday.