COVID-19 Testing Procedures

COVID-19 Testing Procedures

To provide an additional layer of safety to the ongoing public health and preventive efforts, Teachers College, Columbia University requires an initial single COVID-19 PCR diagnostic test (nasal swab) of all faculty, staff, students and housing affiliates who are returning to campus for the fall 2021 semester. 

Gateway Test: If you are returning to campus for the first time since May 17, you must submit a negative PCR COVID-19 gateway test for campus access. Your PCR test must be administered within 14 days of the date on which you return to campus. If you submit a test result administered more than 14 days before returning to campus for the first time, you will be denied access. A gateway test is not required for students, faculty, staff and affiliates who have been present on campus during the Summer 2021 term as they have already completed this requirement. 

Submit Your COVID-19 PCR Diagnostic Test results

The goal of initial testing for individuals returning to campus is to estimate the prevalence of infection among those individuals. Initial testing helps us compare the prevalence among those newly returning to campus to overall prevalence in NYC, in order to ensure all individuals accessing campus have not recently tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19). Teachers College will also continue to evaluate and adjust our testing strategy going forward, beyond the initial requirement as part of our first reopening plan.

It is important to keep in mind that, in addition to testing, health measures to prevent spread of the virus such as face coverings, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions have been shown to be effective in prevention of transmission of the virus, from both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

How to Get a Test


  • CU recommends students schedule their test in advance at
  • Appointments are being continually added so if your first choice is not available, please check again in a day or two. Students that have challenges with scheduling should email
  • 5% of all resident students will be randomly selected each week to be tested (CU students are also required to participate in the weekly random sampling test).
  • Residential Services and Student Affairs will work together to provide the list of students chosen for the random sampling on behalf of TC, and CU will then notify selected students that they were chosen.
  • CU will conduct contact tracing for any positive cases identified through the CU testing program. CU is aware that TC also has an internal contact tracing program and confirmed that this does not present any conflict.

Non-Resident Students, Staff and Faculty

You may go to any test site operated by local governments, private companies including pharmacies and medical practices or not-for-profit organizations in your area. Testing will be free of charge at NYS testing sites or covered by your health insurance provider if you have a physician’s referral, had exposure to COVID-19 or are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or if a health screening determines you should be tested.

You are advised to check with the testing site and your insurer in advance of being tested to confirm if you will be responsible for any fees associated with your test.

Testing is free to all eligible New Yorkers as ordered by a health care provider or by calling the NYS COVID-19 hotline at 1-888-364-3065. If you visit a test site run by New York State, there is currently no charge for your COVID-19 test:

Click Here to search for a NY testing site in near you

Free Walk-in testing locations in NYC:

NYC Mobile Testing Units City MD | NYC Health and Hospitals

Click Here to search for a NJ testing site near you.

Click Here to search for a CT testing site near you.

If you are located outside of the Tri-State-area you can visit your state or local health department’s website to look for the latest local information on testing.

Processing of COVID-19 Test Results

Departments will provide lists of their returning staff and students for tracking purposes. 

The Office of Human Resources and the Office of Student Health & Wellness division in the Office of Student Affairs will track testing results and notify the Office of Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) of any positive results. Once EHS is informed of a positive result, they will assess the level of contact on campus and advise if additional individuals need to be quarantined. 

Positive Test Results:

Students: A student who receives a positive test result will be contacted by a representative of the Office of Student Health and Wellness within the Student Affairs division, to answer questions and offer support related to courses, coordination with faculty, and other supports as needed. 

Faculty & Staff: An employee who receives a positive test result will be directed to notify their supervisor that they are unable to come to work. An employee is not required to share the reason for their absence. 

Frequently Asked Questions

SARS-CoV-2 is the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 illness.

There are two different types of tests for COVID-19, one determines whether you have it now (being the time the test was collected) and the other determines if you have had it at some point in the past.

To detect a COVID-19 infection now, a nasopharyngeal (NP) or nasal swab is used to detect the RNA of the COVID-19 virus.

To detect that an infection occurred at some point in the past, a serology blood test is done to detect antibodies to COVID-19.

In general, it takes a lab about 24 to 72 hours to run the test, though some testing sites can take up to 7-10 days for the patient to receive the test result. How quickly you receive the results will differ based on the testing site and location. We encourage you to verify the average wait time of a COVID-19 test result with each testing site.

To do the NP or nasal test to detect COVID-19 virus or parts of the virus, a sterile, small, cotton-tipped swab is gently passed into the nose back to the nasopharynx or the anterior part of the nose (in the case of nasal swabs) to obtain respiratory tract secretions. It is rotated, removed, and placed in a viral transport media and sent to the clinical microbiology laboratories.

PCR assays are performed on the NP or nasal swab specimens to detect the COVID-19 viral genetic material (RNA). PCR assays can detect live virus, dead virus, or fragments of virus.

The NP or nasal swab PCR test is currently recommended for two groups, although anyone can request a test.

  • Individuals with symptoms to see if their symptoms are from COVID-19. Symptoms of COVID-19 include documented fever or fever to touch, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, chills or shaking chills, congestion/runny nose, diarrhea, alterations of taste, or loss of smell.
  • Individuals without symptoms who have had close contact with someone with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 or with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. 

A positive PCR test from an individual with symptoms means that a person has COVID-19 and can infect others. These individuals need to be isolated at home. In order to return to work, all of the following criteria must be met:

  • At least 14 days have passed since the onset of symptoms
  • At least 72 hours have passed without fever without the use of antipyretic medications, e.g., acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Marked improvement in symptoms
  • Employees must be evaluated by a health care provider and present a fit-for-duty certificate to the Office of Human Resources.

*Note: When these individuals return to work, they need to continue to use all protective measures against COVID-19 (e.g., use of face covering, adherence to physical distancing) because we do not know yet if someone can be re-infected with COVID-19.

The PCR test can detect both live and dead virus, or viral RNA fragments. A positive PCR result in someone without symptoms could mean any of the following:

  • A person has recovered from the virus, but is still shedding the virus and could transmit COVID-19 to others.
  • A person has recovered from COVID-19 but the PCR is detecting dead virus or viral RNA fragments, and COVID-19 cannot be transmitted to others.
  • A person is pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, meaning they may or may not develop symptoms, but are shedding the virus. Asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people who are PCR-positive can sometimes transmit COVID-19 to others, although less frequently than those with symptoms.

This is why asymptomatic individuals who are COVID-19-positive will need to self-isolate at home. They can return to work as long as they remain symptom free after 14 days have passed since the date that their NP or nasal swab was obtained. The NP of the nasal swab does not need to be repeated before the individual can return to work.

Individuals with positive PCR tests should obtain medical clearance and guidance on how to protect their close contacts from their health care provider.

*Note: When these individuals return to work, they need to continue to use all protective measures against COVID-19 because we do not know yet if someone can be re-infected with COVID-19.

No, individuals can return to work as described above. No further PCR testing is required to return to work.

  • Contact health provider to seek advice and care
  • Before seeking care, an individual should call their provider to help coordinate care.
  • Individuals should put a face mask on before entering a healthcare facility.
  • Call 911 if there is a medical emergency like significant shortness of breath.

People with COVID-19-like symptoms can have a negative test for several reasons.

  • A negative test from an individual who previously had symptoms and is now well may mean that a person has cleared the virus and can’t spread the virus to others.
  • This may be a false negative test meaning that the person does have COVID-19, but that the PCR test did not detect the virus because the level of viral RNA was below the limit of detection. Levels of viral RNA are usually highest in the first 5 days of illness.
  • False negative tests can also occur due to inadequate or improper NP or nasal swab collection or problems in the transport of the specimen.
  • Sometimes people with symptoms can have a negative test because they have other reasons for their symptoms such as other respiratory viruses, seasonal allergies or asthma.

It is highly likely that a person without symptoms with a negative NP or nasal PCR test does not have COVID-19 at this point in time. These individuals should observe all preventive measures and self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

If an individual has a negative NP or nasal PCR test result but has had close contact with a person who is known to be positive, this individual should self-quarantine and continue to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days from the time of exposure as there is continued risk of transmission.

Yes. The asymptomatic individual can continue to work while waiting for their test result. They should continue to physically distance and wear a face covering according to University policy. If asymptomatic individuals with close contact of a COVID-19 case get tested, such individuals should self-quarantine for 14 days from the time of exposure.

Occasionally a person will have an indeterminate NP PCR test result. This is considered a positive result and represents a low level of virus. It does NOT need to be repeated.  The individual with an indeterminate result should follow the guidance described above for a positive test result.

Occasionally, a person will have an invalid NP PCR test result, which is the result of excessive mucus in the sample, which interferes with the test. This person SHOULD have a repeat NP swab sent for COVID-19 testing.

The current COVID-19 testing strategy at Teachers College includes the following:

  • Individuals with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and those with history of contact with a presumed or confirmed COVID-19 case are strongly encouraged to test for SARS-CoV-2.
  • Effective January 4th, 2021, a NEW gateway test is required for all students, faculty, staff, and affiliates accessing the Teachers College campus and other facilities. This includes essential staff and individuals who have visited campus throughout 2020 and who previously complied with the campus access requirements. We will continue to evaluate and adjust the testing strategy going forward.

It should be noted that public health measures such as consistent face covering, physical distancing, hand washing, staying home when sick among others, remain the most important measures for prevention of transmission of COVID-19. The information provided herein is based on current knowledge and is subject to change as new information becomes available.

According to the New York State Department of Health, there are two types of COVID-19 diagnostic tests: Molecular tests (referred to as PCR tests):

These tests detect genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19, usually using a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), though other techniques are sometimes used. These tests generally require the specimen to be sent to a laboratory, which is why it usually takes a few days to receive results. COVID-19 molecular tests are very accurate, as they can detect the virus even if there is only a small amount in your system. Antigen tests (commonly referred to as point-of-care (POC) or rapid tests): These tests detect certain proteins in the virus that causes COVID-19. Antigen tests are relatively inexpensive and can be processed in a health care provider’s office, rather than a laboratory. For this reason, results are usually ready quickly (in under an hour). However, COVID-19 antigen tests are not as accurate as molecular tests. There are both false positive test results (the test result is positive even though the person doesn’t have COVID-19) and false negative test results (the test result is negative even though the person has COVID-19), with false negative test results being more common.

For this reason, Teachers College will not accept an Antigen/point-of-care/rapid test to satisfy the COVID-19 testing requirements to enter campus, the College will only accept the Molecular/PCR test as sufficient for the testing requirement to enter campus.

For more information on COVID-19 tests, please visit the New York City Department of Health COVID-19 information webpage.

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