Home testing pilot nears completion: willingness to test is low but online test site delivers
Approximately 1100 students, lecturers and support staff at Avans University of Applied Sciences, HAS University of Applied Sciences and Koning Willem I College have been participating in the self-testing pilot for higher education, which comes to an end this week. The aim of the pilot is to investigate how large-scale home testing can play a part in opening up higher education safely.
Since mid-March, participants have been able to take an antigen test at home, with online supervision. For verification, participants had to report to an online test site, where both the testing procedure and the results were checked by an online monitor. If the result of the test was negative – in other words, no Covid infection was detected – the participant received a personal barcode as proof that they had tested negative.
The pilot will reach completion at the end of this week and the initial findings are already clear. The main conclusions: home testing using an online test site works, but willingness to test is low. Especially if testing brings no benefits, such as the relaxing of social distancing rules or the opportunity to study in Covid-free bubbles.
“The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science was eager to learn from and with organisations as quickly as possible,” project manager Carla Nagel explains. She believes the pilot has made a valuable contribution. “After all, if you want to express a view on the safe reopening of higher education, you have to be able to measure the effects.”
One striking result is that the willingness to test is low among students. Nagel is disappointed by this finding. About 20% of participants did not feel the need to do a home test at all, while a large proportion gave up after a few tests.
Attaching a positive consequence to home testing can certainly help. “If there is something to be gained in return, willingness will increase,” Nagel agrees, but she sees more important challenges ahead. Persistent misconceptions will also have to be debunked. And that is a task for the government.
The presumed unreliability of a rapid antigen test is one such misconception. Many people think this type of test produces a high proportion of false-positive results, and this causes people to avoid them for fear that they will have to go into quarantine and stay home for no reason. But Nagel insists that false positives rarely occur with this type of test, pointing out that it works very differently to a PCR test. “'In this study, we detected no false positives at all.”
She is also keen to point out the positive findings of the pilot: home testing in a controlled, online environment works. “It works incredibly well. People wait for their results in a group discussion. That takes 15 minutes. The results are then given in one-to-one sessions for privacy reasons. The method is scalable. Frankly, we had expected more stumbling blocks along the way. It’s encouraging to see that this approach works.”
The intention is to carry out a follow-up to the current pilot. There are 50,000 rapid test sets on the way, not just for the pilot institutions but also for departments and academies that have yet to take part. The next goal will be to determine how rapid testing can take shape from 26 April onwards. Based on the pilot, four possible scenarios have been mapped out, ranging from complete freedom in whether and how home testing takes place to the supervised barcode system used in this pilot.
Nagel acknowledges that the participating universities of applied sciences are doing everything in their power to make the pilot a success. “They have put in an enormous effort. Everyone is doing the best they can. It is up to their directors to relay that enthusiasm and not to let their focus wane.” A positive approach is essential: there is light at the end of the tunnel and consideration must be given to benefits for students who have taken a negative home test. “For example, institutions can organise events where participants have to show a negative test to gain admission.”
Nagel’s message to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is clear: “Take a feasible approach to implementation, campaign actively and address people’s misconceptions. Because this approach gives us plenty to work with.”