University of Colorado Boulder officials attempted to assure city officials at their biannual meeting Thursday that plans to return students to campus in the fall are safe. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder officials attempted to assure city officials at their biannual meeting Thursday that plans to return students to campus in the fall are safe. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

University of Colorado Boulder leaders on Thursday attempted to assure city officials the plan to return students to campus this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic will be safe, with protocols in place to quickly detect and limit infections on a broad scale.

In one of the biannual meetings held between City Council, municipal staffers and university brass, CU Boulder provided updates to its virus testing capabilities as well as additional reasons that hosting some in-person academic activity is a must for the upcoming semester.

While CU Boulder had already announced the new saliva-based test campus researchers developed, that can provide results in about an hour, school leaders are also relying on the ability to catch the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in wastewater.

When the virus is found through daily testing of one of 20 wastewater locations on campus that will be monitored, it will signal officials that a certain group of people that have been present in a building associated with a positive wastewater point needs to be tested.

“I was interested to find out that COVID will show up in wastewater oftentimes before it would show up anywhere else,” CU Boulder Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O’Rourke said. “That would give us a good first early indicator both of the presence of the disease in our community, and give us an added ability to go in and find it before it could spread to others.”

School officials again acknowledged infection among the campus and student communities is likely, with O’Rourke saying that the ratio of positive tests to the total performed in Boulder County will likely rise beyond its current levels as the university begins rolling out its testing plan. He acknowledged that such a development would not necessarily mean there is a greater incidence or rate of infections due to student returns, but rather that cases would be more likely to be documented with the additional testing.

“That’s actually a really good thing, because it allows us to pick up and identify people who are not currently being tested and wouldn’t be a part of the results,” he said. “Our positive test results are going to be higher than if we were only testing symptomatic patients, and it’s actually going to demonstrate surveillance testing is working.”

Students living off campus and faculty and staff will be offered testing.

“As we increase our testing capabilities, that’s going to be an increasing part of our testing strategy,” O’Rourke said.

CU Boulder officials also reinforced that there are academic equity reasons to hold at least some in-person classes.

“Not coming back, or doing remote only education disproportionately disadvantages underserved populations. Those would be from lower socioeconomic groups, and students of color,” CU Boulder Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Russell L. Moore said.

Plus, thousands of students, staff and faculty are already in Boulder, Moore noted, and many more would likely return even in a remote education-only scenario, due to housing contracts that have already been struck for the upcoming academic year.

“Students are not the enemy, students are a part of us,” Moore said.

City Councilwoman Junie Joseph, a CU law school student, noted the abundance of concerns that have been raised by community members living on University Hill, where students living off-campus occupy many homes. The area has been a source of consternation this summer due to gatherings among young people, including some that were associated with an outbreak of the virus earlier this year.

“Young people, most of us, we actually do listen to each other as opposed to older people in the community telling us what to do,” Joseph said.

CU Boulder has put together a program to have ambassadors, including student leaders, in the Hill neighborhood work to educate their peers on the expectations of the university community to limit the pandemic’s reach.

Campus officials also plan to notify landlords of students accused of violating public health guidance at their residences. They also plan to ask landlords to notify the parents of those students, if they have co-signed the lease.

“We’re not naive to think that sometimes Boulder Police Department is extremely busy and might not be able to answer a noise complaint or nuisance violation that a neighbor has called in,” CU Boulder Director Off-Campus Housing and Neighborhood Relations Director Jeff Morris said. “So what these block captains and neighborhood ambassadors are able to do is to have these conversations, peer-to-peer, with these students when we receive a complaint from the neighborhood.”