Aggressive Testing at University Cuts COVID Rate to Near Zero

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently completed its in-person fall semester. And as the nation watches the COVID-19 virus surge, the school continues the virus testing program that has worked so well since it began in August. 

The COVID-19 positivity rate for the entire student body and faculty for the past seven days was 0.45 percent. The number of total tests given since the inception of the program? A staggering 908,158. But it’s that rate of testing and contact tracing that reduced the positivity rate from a high of nearly 3 percent in late August to what it is now.  

All of the 49,000 students, 2,800 faculty and 8,000 staff are tested at least once weekly using saliva tests, which have proven to produce fewer false positives and fewer false negatives than the swab tests. The saliva test entails the subject “drooling” into a vial.  

“We started the week before classes began on August 24,” Brian Brauer, EMS coordinator at the University of Illinois, wrote in an email. “It was our ‘soft’ opening for the program.” The following week, because of off-campus activities, the positivity rate spiked to 2.86 percent. A week later, with testing and contact tracing, officials had the rate down to 1 percent.  

Brauer wrote that the university has a defined schedule for testing and that, initially, everyone was tested twice per week. It was learned that undergrad students were testing positive at a rate higher than everyone else, though, and so as those students have continued with twice-weekly testing, others were tested once per week until the current surge occurred around the country.   

“We are able to identify clusters of positive cases based on addresses, and we moved those undergrads to every other day,” Bauer wrote. “Currently, we’re back to twice a week testing for all persons on campus.” 

The tests are free at the 17 locations on campus. A university app tied to students IDs moderates the process and acts as a key for students to gain access to campus buildings. They are unable to get that access if they haven’t tested.  

If students test positive, they are notified within 30 minutes with a phone call. “We did not want to email a student or faculty staff member that they were positive,” said Jason Heimbaugh of the University of Illinois Police Department. “We wanted a human voice. Within 30 minutes of knowing, we should have somebody calling that person to reach out to them so that we get them locked down even quicker.”

Students or faculty who test positive are put into isolation on one of the several floors of the residence halls that are being used for that purpose. Other floors in the residence halls are being used for quarantining individuals who have been exposed to the virus.  

The students are able to track, through Bluetooth, if they have been in close contact with a recently confirmed positive case and are notified by the university that they have to get tested.  

“Another benefit

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Western Oregon to make cuts as university faces crunch

MONMOUTH, Ore. (AP) — Several positions and programs at Western Oregon University will be reduced and eliminated next year in an attempt to curb a growing concern for the institution’s financial stability.

The Statesman Journal reports the university’s board of trustees on Nov. 18 approved an adjusted 2021 budget, which required an update on fall 2020 enrollment numbers.

The previous budget, initially adopted at the board’s June meeting, was based on a projected enrollment decrease of 2.5%, officials said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and “many other factors,” officials reported enrollment was actually down about 7.9%.

Officials said the new budget reflects the resulting decrease in revenue, as well as financial shortfalls caused by a shift to mostly remote instruction. Cuts in spending, salaries and other expenses will be used to cover the deficit.

This includes the university reducing or eliminating nearly three dozen full-time equivalent positions and programs, including the elimination of a major or minor in anthropology, a major in philosophy and the entire master’s in music and master’s in information technology programs.

“These are extremely challenging times in higher education, and Western is not alone in having to make difficult decisions for the current and future success of the university,” said outgoing President Rex Fuller, who announced in October his plans for retirement next September.

Many university employees are not sympathetic to the cuts.

On Oct. 28, Western faculty and staff unions initiated a vote of “no confidence” in Fuller in response to concerns raised by employees across the campus.

The unions cited failures of leadership, persistent management problems and damage to the campus climate as primary reasons for conducting the no-confidence vote. More than 85% of the 240 respondents stated they had no confidence in Fuller’s leadership.

Western, located in Monmouth, is the state’s oldest public university and serves nearly 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university announced program expansion into a Salem location last year.

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Coronavirus cuts off travel to total solar eclipse in Chile, Argentina

If it sounds like an otherworldly experience, that’s because it’s sure to be. And it’s one that thousands have eagerly been preparing for leading up to a December 14 total solar eclipse that will track across Chile and Argentina.

But virtually none will be able to go, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Both countries have sealed their borders to international tourism, and show no signs of reversing that decision before the once in a lifetime celestial spectacle.

Even veteran eclipse chasers, like Jay Pasachoff, a professor of astronomy at Williams College, say this year’s eclipse is far from a routine venture for those even able to go.

“This year is the worst,” said Pasachoff.

He’s one of three people globally to hold the world record for eclipse chasing, having witnessed thirty-five total solar eclipses since his first in 1959. That one, which he and fellow classmates his freshman seminar viewed from a plane, left him hooked on what would be a lifelong addiction.

“Each time it gets better and better,” he said.

A total solar eclipse meets a meteor shower

Solar eclipses are something that have to be seen to be understood. Astronomers and stargazers alike routinely travel tens of thousands of miles across the world, all in hopes of basking in the moon’s shadow for mere minutes every few years. There’s a reason for it, and most struggle to put it into words.

Some make a tradition of chasing eclipses around the globe, each rendezvous with the solar “corona,” or the sun’s atmosphere, like a familiar meeting with an old friend. Totality during December’s total solar eclipse will last just over two minutes, the fleeting phenomenon most spectacular shortly after 1 p.m. local time.

“If you add up all the eclipses I’ve seen, I’ve worked on seventy-five eclipses — annual and partial,” said Pasachoff.

“All the people just cheer as the diamond ring effect happens and it goes into totality,” Pasachoff explained. “It’s such a moving thing.”

Meanwhile, the Geminid meteor shower, which could slingshot dozens of shooting stars across the sky every hour, will have just peaked — meaning sporadic green meteors may make an appearance when the sun goes dark.

Included in the path are the northern fringes of Patagonia, a South American region known for its natural beauty. It’s home to desert, volcanoes, the Andes Mountains, glaciers, and breathtaking fjords.

Major travel hurdles

A number of travel agencies offered combined sightseeing and eclipse tours, scouting out locations to build an itinerary years in advance. In the past several months, however, they have been forced to cancel their trips.

The same is true in Argentina, where the U.S. Embassy has listed the country as being in a level 4 out of 4 “do not travel” advisory.

“Travelers to Argentina may experience border closures, airport closures, travel prohibitions, stay at home orders, business closures, and other emergency conditions within Argentina due to covid-19″ wrote the U.S. State Department.

Both Chile and Argentina last enjoyed a total solar

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‘We need teachers.’ USF, districts at odds over College of Education cuts.

A major disagreement over the future of teacher training in Tampa Bay played out in dueling public statements issued late Tuesday by the University of South Florida and the Pinellas County school district.

In an op-ed submitted to the Tampa Bay Times, university officials stood by their decision, announced last week, to phase out undergraduate programs in the College of Education. They said it was part of a “strategic realignment” driven in large part by a steep drop in the college’s enrollment over the last decade. Graduate programs, they said, would continue and be improved.

Related: USF will close its College of Education due to budget cuts

A short time later, the Pinellas County School Board approved a resolution criticizing USF’s decision and urging the university to reconsider. The resolution said Pinellas schools rely heavily on USF’s undergraduate program as it hires 600 to 800 new teachers each year. About a quarter of them come from USF.

Eileen Long, the board’s vice chairwoman and a USF alumna, called the university’s decision “heartbreaking.”

She spoke of current students she knows who have been told to look for other schools to complete their degrees.

“We need teachers,” Long said after reading the resolution aloud. “Teachers are the foundation of everything.” The leaders at USF, she said, “need to think twice.”

The Pasco County School Board is scheduled to consider adopting a similar resolution when it meets Nov. 3.

The two communications followed an op-ed submitted to the Times last week by Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego and his peers in Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The six school district leaders called USF’s decision a “terrible mistake” and “short sighted.” They criticized the revolving door of leadership in the College of Education over the last decade, and listed recommendations.

“It’s time to reimagine a more robust endeavor aligned with our state’s and community’s needs — most notably a real and significant teacher shortage,” the superintendents said. “Our region desperately needs a public College of Education to step forward with a baccalaureate pathway that is forward-thinking, accessible and a national model responsive to the educational and employment needs of the Tampa Bay area.”

Tuesday’s op-ed from USF was authored by university president Steve Currall, provost USF Ralph Wilcox and Judith Ponticell, interim dean of the College of Education.

The three leaders cited a national trend in decreased demand for four-year undergraduate degrees in education, including a 63 percent dip in undergraduate enrollment over the last 10 years at USF.

Students, they said, are seeking less costly options through the state college system and other certification programs.

“Rather than duplicate other credentialing programs that are funded by taxpayer dollars, we believe USF’s talented faculty and staff can best meet the needs of our communities through a fresh focus on world-class graduate education and research,” the USF trio said.

They said their plan was still in the early phases and that the university would be working with faculty, staff and community stakeholders in

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Who will teach the teachers? Budget cuts claim a major university education program.

How many times have we heard that perhaps the single most important factor in a student’s classroom success is the quality of the teacher? What does it mean, then, when one of the most prolific providers of teachers in the Tampa area — one that once was among the nation’s largest programs — decided to shut its doors? A shock to the state budget might be the most immediate impetus for the move, but some observers have suggested that the University of South Florida might want to rethink its approach rather than just closing shop on its College of Education undergraduate program. Read on for that and more Florida education news.

a statue in front of a brick building: The University of South Florida College of Education. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]

© OCTAVIO JONES | Times]/Tampa Bay Times/TNS
The University of South Florida College of Education. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Yes, you read that right. The University of South Florida announced the end of its undergraduate program in the College of Education. Officials said it’s a money thing.

Speaking of universities … Did you know Florida’s public university system is the only one in the nation to require applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score this year? Some seniors are struggling to find a place to take the test.

Are Florida teens ready for higher education? A recent study suggested teachers are too lenient with their course grades. Some district educators said the report offered nothing new.

Teach U.S. history objectively. The Citrus County School Board says it doesn’t want curriculum brought forth by “radical groups,” the Citrus County Chronicle reports.

Mask mandates are dividing school districts. The Indian River County School Board decided not to act on a recommendation to end its rule, instead asking for clarifications, TC Palm reports.

Where are campus coronavirus outbreaks coming from? At one Duval County high school, an off-campus homecoming week party is the likely culprit, the Florida Times-Union reports.Pace High in Santa Rosa County has the state’s highest positivity rate among schools, the Pensacola News Journal reports. Officials don’t plan to change anything at the school.

Students are showing up. After a spotty spring, Palm Beach County children are attending class in better numbers — both online and in person — at the schools serving the district’s poorest communities, the Palm Beach Post reports.

From the campaign trail … Questions are arising about the financial support between a Broward County School Board member and the county sheriff, Florida Bulldog reports.An activist group has launched a campaign opposing Okaloosa County’s school sales tax referendum, questioning the district’s use of tax dollars, the Northwest Florida Daily News reports.

Race remarks get a teacher in hot water. Thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for disciplinary action against an Osceola County high school teacher who told her class she had a right to “dislike Black people,” WFTV reports.

Need a school bus? The Alachua County school district has plenty extra, having just bought a new fleet, and it’s donating some to civic groups, the Gainesville Sun reports.

Stay safe. Two Bay

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FAA cuts the red tape for commercial rocket launches (and landings, too)

Commercial space is about to become more accessible than ever before. 

Today (Oct. 15), the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) announced that it has published a new launch and re-entry rule known as the Streamlined Launch and Re-entry Licensing Regulation-2 (SLR2). The new rule aims to increase launch and reentry access for commercial space companies while maintaining safety. 

“We’ve seen the first launch of American astronauts into orbit aboard an American-built rocket since the end of the space shuttle program in 2004, to the International Space Station,” United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, said in a news conference today, referring to SpaceX’s two-month Demo-2 mission, which lifted off on May 30. 

“Our country is headed towards a record year in commercial space, and our goal in finalizing this new regulation is to keep it that way,” Chao said.

“We’re cutting the red tape that has held this industry to the launch pad for far too long,” FAA assistant administrator for communications Brianna Manzelli said at the news conference.

Related: Trump’s Space Policy Directive 2 could make life easier for SpaceX & others

This new rule is rolled out under the President’s Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2), which was enacted in 2018. SPD-2 guides the Secretary of Transportation to create a new regulatory structure for launch and re-entry activities. The directive also advises the Secretary to consider allowing commercial operations to launch and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere with just a single license (as opposed to having to get a new license for individual activities).

And with SLR2, the FAA has done just that. Now, only a single license is required “for all types of commercial space flight launch and re-entry operations,” according to SLR2, which “increases flexibility for launch and re-entry vehicle operations.” 

With SLR2, the FAA aims to streamline launch and re-entry procedures, so, “while it is laser-focused on public safety, it only regulates to the extent necessary,” Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said during the news conference today. “The goal is to simplify the licensing process and a lot of novel operations, reduce costs and positioning both the industry and the FAA for the rapid increase in the number of launches that are coming, all without compromising safety.”

One interesting component of this new regulation sort of gets rid of the old rules that stated that the license for a launch would “begin” or take effect upon arrival at the launch site — for example, the gate at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

Instead, now, “an individual company can, in essence, negotiate with us when they want the license to begin,” Monteith said. “It reduces [the] burden on the individual stakeholder. And it certainly reduces [the] burden on government to monitor operations that have little to no impact on public safety.”

Email Chelsea Gohd at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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USF to close College of Education, reconfigure it into graduate school amid budget cuts

Earlier this month, USF announced it planned to cut $36.7 million from its overall budget.

TAMPA, Fla — The current College of Education at the University of South Florida is set to shut its doors because of budget cuts. And, it will be reimagined as a graduate school that will become part of another college on campus.

In a message to faculty and staff, Interim Dean Judith A. Ponticell wrote USF would reduce the College of Education’s annual budget allocation by $6.8 million, or 35 percent, over the next two years. The decision comes amid budget challenges linked directly to the coronavirus pandemic.

“To that end, we are strategically reimagining and reconfiguring Education at USF from a comprehensive College of Education to a more focused Graduate School of Education with an appropriate organizational affiliation with another college such as the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences,” Ponticell explained. “This will allow us to continue to serve our students and communities, including our vital partners in our area school districts.”

USF confirmed the news ahead of a 3 p.m. news conference that follows information first reported by student newspapers The Oracle in Tampa and USF St. Petersburg’s The Crow’s Nest. 

The university is expected to address the situation at 3 p.m. Thursday during a virtual press conference with USF Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Wilcox and Judith Ponticell, interim dean of the USF College of Education.

Earlier this month, USF announced it planned to cut $36.7 million from its overall budget following a new directive given to state universities by the State University System. 

In an email from USF President Steven Currall sent to students, faculty and staff, he said all state universities have been asked to make plans for an 8.5-percent reduction in state funding, which equates to $36.7 million for USF. 

To begin preparations, Currall announced the university will start by reducing the salaries of the school’s senior leadership, including a voluntary 15 percent reduction in his own salary.

The university also shared plans to reduce $13.4 million from its colleges this fiscal year.

Below is Ponticell’s entire message to faculty and staff:

Like many Institutions of Higher Education across the State and throughout the nation – USF faces significant budget challenges in the face of COVID-19 while we continue our progress as a consolidated preeminent research university. As part of our strategic budget renewal process, USF must reduce the College of Education’s annual budget allocation by $6.8 M (or 35%) over two years, a challenging task that demands a comprehensive assessment as we plan for the future of Education at USF.  

To that end, we are strategically reimagining and reconfiguring Education at USF from a comprehensive College of Education to a more focused Graduate School of Education with an appropriate organizational affiliation with another college such as the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. This will allow us to continue to serve our students and communities, including our vital partners in our area school districts.  

This change

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