Testing initially wasn’t going to be mandatory at KU, but decision changed at the last minute
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo
The University of Kansas on Wednesday announced that students and staff returning to campus would go through a mandated COVID-19 testing program, similar to plans announced by other universities across the country.
But documents obtained by the Journal-World show that just a day earlier, university leaders had decided testing wouldn’t be mandated for all, and that the university was on the verge of adopting a plan that would require only students living in university housing to be tested.
In an email sent just after 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Rounds, KU’s vice provost for operations, informed select department leaders — including deans, department chairs and unit directors — that testing would be available for the entire campus community, but could be required only for those under a student housing contract, according to the emails shared with the Journal-World.
It is unclear what caused the university to change its position just 24 hours later.
The Journal-World was preparing to publish an article highlighting that tests would not be mandatory when KU released its new policy at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday announcing that tests would indeed be required. The announcement came just two days before students started returning to campus, as KU began a staggered move-in to on-campus housing on Friday.
As for why KU leaders were considering not requiring COVID tests — diverging from policy at other major universities such as Harvard, Purdue and the University of Illinois — a KU spokesman acknowledged there was concern whether mandatory testing would violate people’s constitutional rights.
“Mandatory testing inherently involves a Fourth Amendment analysis,” KU spokesman Andy Hyland said in an email. “We believe that given the unprecedented nature of the ongoing global pandemic that we needed to take this action to advance the health and safety of our community.”
Others confirmed there was a constitutional debate underway on campus. Grant Daily, KU’s student body vice president, confirmed to the Journal-World that in past days and weeks concerns were raised about whether requiring a COVID-19 test would violate the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“There were some concerns about the Fourth Amendment,” Daily said. “But I think they decided those concerns weren’t what they thought they were.”
Hyland didn’t provide a specific reason for the policy change to require testing other than to say circumstances change quickly during a pandemic.
“As we have said throughout this pandemic, the situation is often fluid and change can occur rapidly,” he said in an email. “We consulted with campus colleagues, considered available options and made a decision that we felt was best for the health and safety of our community.”
KU officials deny that they were considering largely voluntary testing because of financial considerations. But financial documents obtained by the Journal-World do show that KU received significantly less money from the state for testing than what it had requested.
KU applied for $6.1 million in funds for testing through Gov. Laura Kelly’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) task force, which is in charge of doling out federal dollars that come to Kansas to aid in the pandemic recovery. KU, however, received only $3 million in funding for testing, according to data from the Kansas Board of Regents, which is the agency responsible for distributing the money.
Hyland, though, said the difference between requested funding and approved funding played no role in KU’s decision. He said the difference in the two amounts actually does not represent a shortfall in what KU requested versus what it received.
“It did not change plans for the fall semester at all,” he said. “The SPARK Taskforce funded KU’s request for testing for the fall semester only – and not our full request that included spring semester testing as well – due to the fact that SPARK money must be expended by the end of the calendar year.”
Hyland said KU asked for the $6.1 million instead of the $3 million for the fall semester because at the time of the application, it was unclear that all the federal money had to be spent by the end of the year.
Some members of the university community, though, said the talk of making the testing largely voluntary seemed to intensify after KU received news on the funding. Two faculty members who spoke with the Journal-World said they were surprised to learn that KU was considering anything other than a mandatory testing program. Those faculty members also said they and many others were previously under the impression testing would be mandatory.
One of those, University Senate President Sanjay Mishra, confirmed that faculty leadership was told Monday that testing could not be required because of constitutional concerns. Those concerns weren’t as apparent for those under university housing contracts, since KU could require a COVID-19 test as part of the contract agreement, Mishra said.
Ultimately, though, no one interviewed by the Journal-World for this article could say for certain what caused the sudden reversal in policy announced Wednesday.
Attention now has begun to turn to how the testing program will be used to determine safety levels on campus. Currently details are sparse on that front; when asked, Hyland did not provide a number or estimate for how many tests the $3 million in funding would provide.
The Board of Regents data provided to the newspaper may also help answer that question. In that data, KU estimated its total on-campus population at 27,669 people for the academic year. Rough math indicates that the $3,083,079 it was given for testing would pay for every member of the on-campus population to be tested once at $111.42 per test before that funding pool runs out. Various labs across the country have estimated the cost of COVID-19 tests at between $150 and $200.
KU has not given details on its arrangement with the Lenexa laboratory conducting the testing program.
Hyland also did not specify whether there were benchmarks, such as a percentage of positive tests or the number of confirmed cases from the initial testing, that would result in changes to the university’s operations.
“Our medical planning teams are constantly monitoring the situation and weigh several different factors when making decisions,” he said. “There is no single factor that will dictate any changes.”
Lua Yuille, a law professor and the president of KU’s Faculty Senate, said those details were important to the university community.
She said many questions were still unanswered from the faculty perspective in terms of the initial round of testing, what testing may or may not come afterward, and how the results will be used to determine safety measures for the community.
“In our timing, clarity around testing remains one of the most important tasks that we have before us and that we need the administration to get right,” she said.
KU’s testing program began Friday when students started a staggered move-in process to university housing. Large numbers of KU employees are expected to return Aug. 17, as Rounds’ email obtained by the Journal-World said preparations in work spaces related to COVID-19 safety would be ongoing until then.
In-person classes are scheduled to start on Aug. 24.