Declining enrollment, increasing testing capacity and managing outbreaks with off-campus groups are the major issues facing the state’s institutions of higher education, Kansas university presidents told legislators Thursday.
But leaders at the state’s public colleges and universities reported to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that, overall, there were fewer bumps in the road to reopening campuses than expected.
"Things are pretty doggone quiet," Washburn University president Jerry Farley said. "I almost hate to say that, and we’ll see what happens Friday night when I get the next report, but we’re in pretty good shape at the moment."
As of Wednesday, the Kansas Department for Health and Environment reports 24 clusters tied to colleges and universities, accounting for 388 cases.
The University of Kansas alone found 546 positive tests after requiring that all students, faculty and staff planning on attending in-person classes get swabbed.
"That’s 546 cases that we would have not known about and showed up in Lawrence had we not done that," said KU Chancellor Douglas Girod.
Both Girod and Kansas State University president Richard Myers acknowledged that Greek life and off-campus parties have been issues for both campuses.
Douglas County last month ordered 10 KU fraternities and sororities to quarantine after members tested positive. Health officials in Riley County, which includes Kansas State, have reported similar outbreaks there but haven’t taken further action.
Few have reported severe complications. Officials from the state’s community college system reported that multiple students have been hospitalized, including one student-athlete who was recently discharged from an intensive-care unit.
But such cases were the exception, Myers noted.
"The bad news is cases are going up, mostly due to off-campus events," he said. " ... The good news is, knock on wood here, 18-, 24-year-olds often don’t even present symptoms and when they do it is mild. Not saying there isn’t an impact, but we aren’t seeing hospitalizations."
Testing strategies going forward differ across campuses.
KU, for instance, plans to transition into running about 500 tests a week, testing those with known contact with an infected individual, as well as a random group of students.
If further outbreaks occur and the university would need to dramatically ramp up tests, state support would be necessary, Girod said.
"It is not an insignificant undertaking," he said. "We probably need some help from the state to do that, to really scale it back up again."
Most universities are paying for all tests through their share of federal CARES Act dollars, although at least one college, Pittsburg State University, is first attempting to cover the cost of any test through private insurance.
But Emporia State University president Allison Garrett said it was easier on staff to pay for all tests, regardless of whether students were covered or not.
"Staffing a campus health center is a challenge right now because there is a huge demand ... and we want the people who are working in our health center right now to actually be testing people, as opposed to doing the paperwork," Garrett said. "They’re staying until 7, 8 (p.m.) every night just to do the testing right now."
Wichita State University has gone a step farther: By the end of September it will open its own molecular diagnostic lab, which will be able to handle upwards of 22,500 tests per week.
The goal is to significantly expand capacity, not just for Wichita State but also the local school districts and Wichita-area businesses.
"Testing is the key," Wichita State president Jay Golden said. "If we are to stay open and our economy is to stay sustained then we need to do the testing."
Universities are using a range of instruction options, ranging from three-quarters of classes being conducted in person at Emporia State to an even split of physical, online and hybrid offerings at KU.
But several schools are reporting a dip in the number of students taking those classes. KU and Emporia State have both seen enrollment declines of 2%, according to early estimates, with even more significant declines in their incoming freshman classes.
Dual enrollment at the state’s community and technical colleges is similarly down, with scheduling conflicts created by online instruction.
Still, schools said they welcomed having students back in college towns across the state.
While campuses were forced to close in March because of the pandemic, officials said that step would be avoided at all costs — even if another rise in cases occurs.
"We don’t feel like we’d have to do that going forward," Myers said.