In the fall 2020, Big 10 Universities like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Wisconsin-Madison saw concerning spread of COVID-19 on their campuses. In Lancaster County where the University of Nebraska is housed, the total number of positive cases more than doubled from the beginning of August to the end of September; by mid-November, cases had doubled again. At Wisconsin, cases rose quickly as the semester started, prompting the university to ramp up existing testing, quarantine residence halls with large outbreaks, and briefly pause in person activities.
Both universities offered nasal swab testing on their campuses. For a campus community of over 60,000 students, faculty, and staff, Wisconsin administered an impressive 12,000 nasal swab tests every week. Nebraska administered fewer tests during the fall: ~1,500 tests per week for a population of over 32,000 students, faculty and staff. Given their experiences, the campuses realized that a more robust approach to testing could help them reduce the spread of COVID-19 again in the spring semester.
Administrators at Nebraska and Wisconsin learned about the University of Illinois saliva testing through their Big 10 connections. A group of them visited the University of Illinois campus to see how it worked. The cheaper, less invasive saliva tests were mandatory for all students and staff at the University of Illinois. Negative test results were required to enter campus buildings and participate in activities, helping limit the risk of outbreaks.
Would the saliva testing work for Nebraska and Wisconsin, too?
For extensive testing to work, the process would need to be simple and efficient, with technology to support the process. How would students know when and where to get tested? How would they access their results? Would they know what to do if they tested positive? How would they manage access to buildings based on test results? A mobile app seemed like a good way to manage the logistics of mandatory testing. But given the urgency of the situation, neither institution had the time or resources to create one from scratch and have it ready to deploy in winter or spring semester.
Once again, they turned to the University of Illinois for a solution. They learned about Rokwire’s Safer Illinois app, an app that functioned as a “digital status card,” granting or denying access to campus buildings. The app let users know when and where to get tested, shared test results with health providers, and notified users if they had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Since the app had been developed, vetted, and deployed at the University of Illinois campus in the summer and fall of 2020, there was less risk associated with bringing it to other schools. As Todd Shechter, Chief Technology Officer at the University of Wisconsin explained, “You had an app already, you had a platform. A lot of the development had already happened.”
Reducing app development time
Still, the app would need to be modified to meet the unique needs of the two campuses. Rokmetro, a professional services team that customizes the Rokwire application for other users, helped the universities customize the app. The universities wouldn’t need to spend months developing the basic functions. Instead, they could focus on selecting and adapting the capabilities to their unique needs.
University of Nebraska’s Heath Tuttle explained, “The Safer Communities app really saved our bacon. If we had been doing something on our own, we would not have had the functionality, the user experience side figured out. It would have taken us much longer.” By building on top of the Rokwire platform, Nebraska’s Safer Communities app was ready to deploy in record time, at the beginning of winter semester.
Shechter likewise worked with Rokmetro to create a customized Safer Badgers app for Wisconsin. Wisconsin kept some of the capabilities of the original Safer Illinois app, modified others, and even added a few new features. For instance, when people started getting vaccinated, the University of Wisconsin no longer felt they needed to be tested. “We wanted to be able to capture vaccination status on the app. Fortunately, it was a really simple change. Now building access takes into account vaccination status, not just testing,” Shechter explained.
Knowledge sharing within the Rokwire user community
Because the app was concurrently being deployed at several schools, Nebraska and Wisconsin became part of a growing community of users who were sharing advice and troubleshooting together. For Tuttle, the most beneficial exchanges among these users centered around how to navigate the culture, politics, policy, and communications behind the app. It was incredibly useful to receive advice about how other campuses rolled it out, how they communicated with students and faculty, and how the testing would impact the way people would operate.
With the saliva testing and app, both universities were able to dramatically increase testing while reducing the spread of COVID-19 on their campuses. Wisconsin went from 12,000 tests a week to over 80,000 tests per week for most of winter semester; Nebraska’s testing increased more than tenfold. Both campuses were able to keep their positivity rates low and complete their semesters with minimal disruption. Along with other public health measures, the saliva testing, together with the app, helped keep students, faculty and staff safe by helping to identify and isolate those with the virus.