If the number of corona infections doesn’t rise too high, students will be allowed to return to campus again for one day a week starting 26 April. The government believes that self-tests can help ensure a safe return to face-to-face education.
But how does it intend to get all those tests to hundreds of thousands of students and staff? There were many unanswered questions about this in recent weeks, including in the House of Representatives. Minister Van Engelshoven’s letter provides answers to some of these questions.
SURF, the ICT organization for the Dutch educational system, will help distribute the free tests, setting up a digital portal where students and staff can place their orders. They will be able to access this portal using the same username and password they use to access their institutions’ digital environments. After they’ve submitted their order, the self-tests are delivered to an address of their choosing.
Anyone who doesn’t have a SURF account – because they are enrolled at a non-public university of applied sciences, for instance – will receive self-tests through their institution. A number of public universities of applied sciences are making a deliberate choice to take care of their own distribution as well, which the Minister supports.
The new portal is expected to be ready in early May and distribution of the tests will begin in the following days. That means that institutions may reopen well before distribution has started, but this should not be an issue, the Minister writes. “Self-tests will play a supporting role in this reopening but are not a precondition.”
Not all tests will be delivered by standard mail carriers. The ministry and SURF are “signing contracts with third parties that can organise test distribution”. The Ministry of Health – which is currently stockpiling self-tests – will deliver tests to a number of distribution points. Institutions are expected to receive the first batches in the second half of April.
In total, the operation will cost almost half a billion euros. The money will be taken out of the Ministry of Finance’s “big coronavirus fund”. The self-tests are voluntary and should explicitly not be seen as a substitute for the basic Covid rules: students are still expected to maintain social distancing, to stay home if they have symptoms and to regularly wash their hands.
The Minister ends her letter on a positive note: “I am confident that this can be done in a safe manner and appeal to institutions, students and staff to contribute to the improvement of the epidemiological situation through the use of self-tests.”
Looking at the results of a recent self-test pilot at Avans University of Applied Sciences, however, the Minister’s appeal might be falling on deaf ears. As it turns out, students are not all that eager to use self-tests: in the end, only 30 percent of those who were asked to do so participated in the pilot.
What does that mean for the prospect of higher education returning back to normal, with no social distancing? Chair of the Executive Board of Avans Paul Rüpp has said that students could be asked to show a negative test result or proof of vaccination, referring to this as “a real possibility”. Professor of Educational Law at Tilburg University, Paul Zoontjens, thinks this is “more or less inevitable”.