Officials are making plans for social distancing and testing of people on campus as well as contact tracing, and hoping for the best.
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, a former governor of Indiana, made the announcement in April, saying: “Purdue University, for its part, intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the covid-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.”
On Wednesday, CNBC quoted Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, as saying he believes colleges and universities will “be in a position” to try to open “because I’m hopeful that coming off of July and August, we’re going to see some declines in cases in the summer.”
But as California State University made clear, not everybody agrees the experiment is worthwhile. This post explains why not. It was written by Scott White, a college admissions expert who retired after 40 years in education, including more than 20 years as a school counselor and guidance director at Montclair High School in New Jersey.
By Scott White
I feel like Chicken Little here, but I am really concerned about colleges opening this fall.
This would be undertaking a grand experiment on potentially millions of college students with unknown consequences. Colleges that open are betting that these young and healthy students will not get sick or die of the disease or can be isolated to prevent a major outbreak. But we have not yet experienced such a large group of individuals who will be exposed to the virus, and we don’t know what will happen.
I listened recently to televised interviews with Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and former Indiana governor. He was the first college president of a major university to announce that he had decided to open Purdue, a school of 45,000 students, in the fall. His most illuminating line: “We don’t pretend to have a plan yet.” Since then, scores of other colleges and universities have followed suit.
This followed an op-ed in the New York Times by Brown University President Christina Paxson. who warned that a “crisis looms for students, higher education and the economy if colleges and universities cannot reopen their campuses in the fall” and that “the reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority."
Paxson’s op-ed, “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It.” is contingent on the ability to “test, trace and separate,” to protect vulnerable students and staff. However none of these components are fully operational at this time, and some are barely out of the starting gate. The availability of universal testing remains a problem as the nation still struggles to gain adequate access to tests for everybody who wants one.
The article acknowledges that all campuses must be able to conduct rapid testing for the coronavirus for all students, when they first arrive on campus and at regular intervals throughout the year. Testing only those with symptoms will not be sufficient. This is certainly true, but what indication do we have that such a capacity will exist by September of this year?
Those advocating for schools to reopen appear to assume students will always stick to social distancing rules. How realistic is that? Who thinks students will not engage in social activities at close quarters (have you met college students?), including having parties and sex. Young people are already aware that covid-19 does not seem to affect young people as much as older people.
And suppose students do disregard the new rules. What will colleges do? Call the campus police? What will be done to protect the thousands of support staff, many of whom are in risk groups?
Writer Graeme Wood said in an Atlantic article that “a single covid-19 case could turn a college dorm into a small landlocked cruise ship.” College is a petri dish for the spread of infectious diseases. That is the reason most colleges require students to get the meningitis vaccine before attending. One active case of the virus has the potential to spread throughout the community, to the support staff, administrators and professors.
Many experts, including Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predict a spike in cases in the late fall and early winter. That would be just in time for students to disperse on winter break and bring the virus home with them to their parents and grandparents and hometown friends and neighbors.
There are some major unanswered questions that have not been adequately addressed:
1. Whether high viral load can end up even getting the young sick.
2) Because efforts to minimize the spread on college campuses can’t really stop covid-19 and can only slow it down, what is the acceptable rate for infection and sickness to keep schools open?
Perhaps the best course of action would be to continue online instruction for the fall, asking professors to take a substantial pay cut and providing financial lifelines for support staff. One college classmate of mine, a college professor, wrote in response to this suggestion, “I’d probably be willing to take one for the team with a big, temporary pay cut, under the circumstances.”
Anne Schuchat, another college classmate, is the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She wrote that the initial spread of the virus came from flights from Europe, Nile boat tours, a scientific convention and Mardi Gras. Combined, these were no more than thousands and, at most, tens of thousands of individuals. There are millions of college students!
Whatever the strategy for effectively moving ahead, planning must precede decision-making, not the other way around. That message seems to have escaped those in charge of the national response, many of the state responses, and is now in evidence in some parts of the higher education world.
Parents and school administrators are often criticized for pushing children too hard, too fast and too soon. The same admonition should apply to college administrators in their decision-making process on when to reopen campuses during the covid-19 pandemic.
(Correction: Fixing spelling of university president’s name)