More than 30 coronavirus test sites are being set up to check North Dakota’s college students before they return to campus later this month. The goal is to test as many as possible – there are 45,000 students in the North Dakota University System – in the coming weeks.

The cost will be in the tens of millions of dollars, with $20 million in CARES Act funding dedicated to pay for it. Yet testing will not be mandatory before those students are allowed to return to campus. The decision to participate is up to them.

Is it worth the effort, and specifically the cost, if it isn’t mandatory?

Yes.

Will a worthwhile number of students participate?

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That’s to be seen, but let’s hope so.

Sites will be set up throughout the state, from Bowman in the southwest corner, Williston in the northwest, Grand Forks in the northeast and Wahpeton in the southeast. In the middle are dozens more testing sites. It will be free to students, and the hope is they’ll take advantage.

When the Herald first heard the proposal back in June, it raised doubt. After all, if it’s not mandatory, won’t numerous students presumably come to campus already carrying the virus? What about the many students from out-of-state, where testing centers are not available?

Isn’t it possible students who are confirmed negative at a site could still contract the virus in the time between the test and the start of school? Will students in rural areas take the time to drive to the testing sites?

Joshua Wynne, head of the UND medical school and the state’s chief health strategist, responded to our concerns.

“What I would say is that if (a small) percent of students or faculty don’t participate, at least we have screened the other 90 or 95%. That gives us a high degree of confidence, much higher than otherwise, that we would not have a super spreader that would affect 100 or 150 people,” he said. “So no, it’s not a waste of money if we don’t quite get to 100%. … If we can get high percentages, it is absolutely worth doing it.”

And there’s the key: “If we can get high percentages.”

There’s a lot at stake this fall for colleges and the communities in which those campuses are located. Naturally, all involved want the students to return, not just for the sake of educational normalcy but also for economic reasons.

Of course, trying to salvage an economy should not cost human lives, but it’s important that universities at least attempt to return to something that resembles normal college education and life. The NDUS testing program is a step in that direction, and one that could help dissuade sick students from coming to campus and sparking an outbreak.

Importantly, students must understand their responsibility – one of responsible adults – and participate in the testing program before they return to school. They must similarly act responsibly once they arrive in their college town.

It’s the only way the state’s return-to-school initiative can work.