Skip to main content

Return to Learn Program

Return to Learn Program

About the Program

UC San Diego’s Return to Learn Program aims to broadly test students, faculty and staff on campus on a recurring basis for presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. This evidence-based program, which includes plans for contract tracing and isolation housing for on-campus resident students who test positive for the virus, is intended to better position UC San Diego to resume in-person activities when fall classes begin in September 2020.

Students in on-campus housing are encouraged to participate in the initial phase of UC San Diego’s innovative COVID-19 screening program.

Learn how to participate in the program (log in required) »

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose?

In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, UC San Diego implemented remote education programs so that the vast majority of students could continue their studies while taking shelter. While we are proud of our remote education programs, we are also committed to continuing to offer our students the experience of being and learning on a college campus. Our models suggest that large-scale COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff at UC San Diego could potentially reduce the risks of outbreaks and could enhance our ability to respond if outbreaks occur.

How do you do that?

The initial phase, slated to launch May 11, is intended to assess the design, implementation, and feasibility of the proposed testing program, called UC San Diego Return to Learn. We hope this early effort will provide experience and insight into how best to plan for and implement a larger program, as early as September when fall classes begin at UC San Diego. The initial phase seeks the participation of the more than 5,000 students currently on campus; the subsequent effort might involve up to an estimated 65,000 students, faculty, and staff.

How will the initial phase work?

In the initial phase, COVID-19 testing will be made available to resident undergraduate and graduate students currently (May 2020) on campus. Participation is voluntary, but all eligible students are encouraged to participate. There will be no cost to the students who choose to participate. Participating students will be directed to one of several designated sites on campus to pick up a clean nasal swab in a specimen collection container, linking a personalized number to the specimen and generating a time stamp. The participant will then swab the inside of their own nose, return the swab to the container, place it in a provided plastic bag and leave it in a collection box to be picked up by program coordinators who will test for the virus by nucleic acid detection at the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine at UC San Diego Health.

What will be learned from this data?

The nasal swabs will be tested for SARS-CoV-2. In the aggregate, they may provide a good idea of how effective this approach might be if deployed in the fall to proactively monitor UC San Diego for evidence of viral transmission. The program is intended to help determine locations and populations in which the virus might be spreading so that university leaders, scientists and physicians can more effectively respond to the virus’ spread.

The program is designed to be dynamic and adaptive, focusing on minimizing transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2. We will be working closely with UC San Diego Health and San Diego County public health officials throughout the effort.

How can you be sure it will work?

We are conducting the initial phase to test our operational capabilities and whether it is possible to effectively scale up in the fall. This effort is not reactive, based solely upon responding to disease activity. A team of UC San Diego clinicians, public health experts, molecular biologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, bioinformaticians and others has created rigorous mathematical modeling tools that will guide development this viral monitoring program. We hope to be able to detect SARS-CoV-2 on our campus at its earliest stages. By testing 60 to 90 percent of our campus population of students, faculty and staff for shedding of SARS-CoV-2 on a recurring basis, our models suggest that we will have a greater than 90 percent chance of detecting viral spread at a time when less than 10 of the 60,000 members of our campus population are shedding virus, perhaps before these persons are symptomatic.

What happens if a sample proves positive for SARS-CoV-2?

As samples arrive in the laboratory, they will be tested for SARS-CoV-2. If an individual sample comes back positive for the virus, Student Health Services will notify the student to provide clinical guidance. Students who live on campus will be relocated to dedicated isolation housing. The isolation units have private bedrooms and bathrooms and are supported with direct meal. Students will have daily phone checks from Student Health. Additionally, the names of students testing positive will be referred to county public health officials for their information and to a trained UCSD team who will reach out to those students to identify other individuals they may have been in close contact with, the goal being to offer appropriate contact tracing and guidance for those individuals. The purpose of contact tracing is to promote public health efforts. The names of positive students will not be disclosed to the individuals with whom they may have had close contacts.

The process will leverage UC San Diego Health’s electronic medical record system to support all notifications and test ordering. UC San Diego was the first in the University of California system to have its student health, counseling and psychological services share electronic medical records with the affiliate health system.

If I participate, how will my privacy be protected?

Participant privacy is a priority. Participant information will be treated under UCSD Student Health Services Notice of Privacy Practices. Other than medical professionals and public health officials who need to know the identity of those testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, all study specimens and records will be managed with barcodes and an associated alphanumeric code.

Has something like this been done on a university campus before?

To our knowledge, the program that we are proposing is novel, just like the coronavirus. We are able to do this because of who and what we are: one of the nation’s top research universities with a deep reservoir of tools and talents. The program will combine information technologies and molecular epidemiology tools with traditional and new public health interventions that we hope will produce extraordinary levels of viral control at the population level.

How Can I Participate?

For the month of May, only undergraduate and graduate students living on campus are eligible to participate. Students currently living on campus can learn how to participate by visiting returntolearn.ucsd.edu. Eligibility for additional groups to participate in this program will be communicated at a later date.

Video about the Program