Scores of colleges and universities have announced that they are planning to reopen campuses in the fall with varying protective measures to try to prevent the spread of covid-19 — barring some change with the coronavirus they can’t see right now.

But, using the same set of medical and health facts available to everyone, other school leaders say it’s too soon to make a decision. As an exercise in looking at how education leaders can come to different decisions in uncertain times, let’s examine the reasoning of the leaders of two schools: the University of Notre Dame and Princeton University.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published newly updated guidance on how colleges and universities can openly safely. You can see that here.

In April, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, a former governor of Indiana, was the first higher-education leader to announce campus would open in the 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.”

Since then many others have said they would open, too; the Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping a list here.

One of the most recent major universities to do so was the University of Notre Dame, whose president, John I. Jenkins, announced that students would come to campus and start classes early, Aug. 10, and finish the semester just before Thanksgiving.

The timing, which is likely to be used by other colleges, is intended to avoid having students return after a break when covid-19 may be flaring up in the winter — although nobody knows with any certainty what the seasonal infection spread would look like with the new coronavirus.

In a recent letter to his faculty, Jenkins explained:

By far the most complex challenge before us is the return of our students to campus for the resumption of classes in the fall semester. Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed. We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.
A major hurdle, of course, is to identify returning students who are carrying the novel coronavirus and prevent them from spreading it to others. We will institute a comprehensive testing protocol, and we have identified facilities to isolate those who test positive and quarantine those students who have been in close contact. We will continue the testing, contact tracing and quarantining protocol throughout the semester, acting aggressively to isolate those with the virus and quarantine any who have been in close contact. We will also institute a number of other health and safety measures.
Some institutions are electing to reduce the number of students on campus by inviting back only a portion of the student body at any time. We have resisted that course because we believe in the educational value of the on-campus experience for all our students, and we recognize it is particularly valuable for students whose living situations away from campus may not be as conducive to study. We intend to bring all our students back to campus for the semester, though we may stage their return to allow for testing and orientation. We believe that, with extensive protocols of testing, contact tracing and isolating or quarantining, coupled with preventive measures such as an emphasis on hand-washing and norms for social distancing and wearing masks in certain settings, we can keep our campus environment safe.

But leaders of other schools aren’t jumping to a decision, including Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber. In a thoughtful and detailed explanation about why he can’t decide until July, he wrote:

To bring back our undergraduates, we need to be confident of our ability to mitigate the health risks not only to them, but also to the faculty and staff who instruct and support them, and to the surrounding community.
We do not yet know enough about the path of this pandemic, and the medical response to it, to determine whether that is possible. For example, we do not know whether quick and accurate testing for the virus will be available in the fall. We do not know whether we will have anti-viral remedies that could reduce the lethality of the disease for those who contract it. We do not know how many people on campus and the surrounding community have already been exposed to the disease and might be immune to it.
We want our decision to be as fully informed as possible. We will undoubtedly learn more about the course of the pandemic, and about the techniques available to combat it, over the next two months. For that reason, Princeton will wait until early July before deciding whether our undergraduate teaching program will be online or residential in the fall term. I appreciate that this uncertainty can itself add to the distress of this pandemic, but I am convinced that it is the most responsible way for Princeton to proceed.

Here’s the letter that University of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins wrote to the faculty about reopening in the fall:

Dear Faculty Colleagues:
Congratulations on completing the academic year under such inauspicious circumstances. I applaud you for your perseverance in the work of teaching and inquiry, despite the constraints of the COVID-19 crisis. I have heard many stories not only of your innovation, but of your sincere commitment to our students’ learning and well-being, even though many had to deal with disruption at home. We will all need to call on such perseverance, innovation and commitment in the coming months as we adapt to the new normal brought on by the novel coronavirus.
In an April 28 letter to you from Tom Burish, Marie Lynn Miranda and me, we informed you of the working groups that are crafting plans for reopening and continuing the work of the University. They have been working hard and, indeed, have formulated sound recommendations ahead of projected schedules.
On May 1, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that barring any resurgence of the coronavirus, he expects to lift all restrictions associated with it on July 4. While there remain uncertainties about the future, I am aware that, now that the spring semester has ended, faculty must prepare courses for the fall, students must make plans for a possible return and we must plan for the phased return of staff to work on campus.
Recognizing the need for clarity, and thanks to the diligent efforts of our working groups, I write to inform you of our plans for reopening the University. While these plans are subject to changes as we monitor developments, they will guide our preparations and they can guide yours as well.
Formulating a Plan for Reopening
Let me begin by reviewing the principles guiding our decisions. Three are particularly relevant to the question of reopening the campus. First, of course, we will protect the safety of our students, faculty, staff and their families. Secondly, we are committed to offering an unsurpassed undergraduate education that nurtures the mind, body and spirit. Finally, we seek to advance human understanding through scholarship, research, and post-baccalaureate programs that heal, unify and enlighten.
It was necessary, given the threat of COVID-19 and government health directives, to send students home in March and turn to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, to close or hibernate our labs and to close our libraries and studios. We could not have asked more from faculty and students in making such online instruction work as well as it could. Yet students and faculty from whom I have heard missed the experience of residential life, personal interaction between students and faculty in and outside the classroom and involvement with student organizations. These are all critical parts of the education we strive to offer at Notre Dame. Moreover, the hibernation of labs and closing of libraries impeded the research work so central to Notre Dame and vital for the good of our society.
As announced in our April 28 letter, several groups have been charged with working on various aspects of the reopening of campus. The Academic Continuity Working Group has made recommendations about our academic calendar, the modes of delivering instruction and ensuring flexibility should circumstances change. A Research Task Force is developing plans for the reopening of research labs and libraries. Finally, a Medical/Health/Operations Working Group is attending to the various steps needed to keep our campus healthy and safe for everyone who resides and works at Notre Dame. This group has benefited from consultation with experts on our own faculty, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins and particularly with a team of medical specialists from Cleveland Clinic. Members have also met with Dr. Mark Fox, the deputy health officer of St. Joseph County.
These groups have developed plans and given me the information I need to make decisions. In addition, we have met with a Faculty Advisory Committee. I have discussed with this committee key recommendations of the working groups and shared with them my own thinking. I am grateful for their thoughtful questions and insights.
Informed by the recommendations and thoughts of these various groups, we have concluded that we are in a position to reopen campus gradually. We will monitor developments, and should a serious outbreak occur, or should we be unable to acquire what we need for testing, it may be necessary to alter these plans. Still, the outline below describes our current objectives.
It will be necessary, of course, for every member of the campus community to be flexible and adopt behaviors that will make our campus as safe as it can be. In the new normal we are facing, we will need to ask everyone to accept some inconveniences and adopt behavioral norms and practices necessary to protect the health of every member of our community.
Research Labs, Studios and Libraries
A Research Task Force, led by Vice President for Research Bob Bernhard, is currently developing a plan for the safe and gradual reopening of our campus research labs, studios and libraries in the coming weeks. We expect that this plan will include a phased reactivation. An upcoming letter from Bob Bernhard to faculty will provide greater detail around the reopening of these facilities.
Summer Session
Given our focus on fully reopening for the fall semester, we cannot host many, if any, programs even during the second half of the summer session. We are considering options that will allow the return of a very small number of students in July, mainly those whose summer work is preparatory for the fall semester. Limiting the numbers of this group will allow us to devote time, energy and resources to reopen in the fall. The Provost’s Office will communicate with relevant programs about their status for the summer.
Fall Semester
By far the most complex challenge before us is the return of our students to campus for the resumption of classes in the fall semester. Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed. We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.
A major hurdle, of course, is to identify returning students who are carrying the novel coronavirus and prevent them from spreading it to others. We will institute a comprehensive testing protocol, and we have identified facilities to isolate those who test positive and quarantine those students who have been in close contact. We will continue the testing, contact tracing and quarantining protocol throughout the semester, acting aggressively to isolate those with the virus and quarantine any who have been in close contact. We will also institute a number of other health and safety measures.
Some institutions are electing to reduce the number of students on campus by inviting back only a portion of the student body at any time. We have resisted that course because we believe in the educational value of the on-campus experience for all our students, and we recognize it is particularly valuable for students whose living situations away from campus may not be as conducive to study. We intend to bring all our students back to campus for the semester, though we may stage their return to allow for testing and orientation. We believe that, with extensive protocols of testing, contact tracing and isolating or quarantining, coupled with preventive measures such as an emphasis on hand-washing and norms for social distancing and wearing masks in certain settings, we can keep our campus environment safe.
A particular epidemiological challenge for college campuses arises when students leave for breaks, are exposed to infectious agents, and return to campus and possibly spread infections to others. To minimize this possibility, we plan to begin classes during the week of August 10, continue through without a fall break and conclude the semester before Thanksgiving. More details about the schedule for the fall semester will be forthcoming from the Registrar’s Office.
We will, in addition to our testing, contact tracing, quarantining and preventive protocols for students, have parallel protocols for faculty and staff. We will be working on these and communicate them to you in the coming weeks.
Fall Study Abroad Programs
The Office of Notre Dame International has worked with the Academic Continuity and Medical/Health/Operations working groups to develop criteria for deciding whether to proceed with study abroad programs. They include a consideration of official health advisories and travel bans, an evaluation of local health care systems, isolation and quarantine requirements and availability of facilities. Notre Dame International hopes to make a decision on study abroad programs in early June. Students enrolled for study abroad have also enrolled for classes on campus, should it be necessary to cancel study abroad programs.
Necessary Adaptations
We must also be prepared for the possibility of an unexpected, severe new outbreak of COVID-19. If such an outbreak occurs, we may need to return to remote instruction. We encourage you to prepare your fall classes with two relatively distinct periods of equal length with their own learning goals and testing procedures. Preparing two distinct periods will allow for a smoother transition should events make it necessary to keep students home in the first half of the semester because of an outbreak, or send them home for the second half of the semester. We will also encourage you, if possible, to be prepared to offer your classes both in-person and through remote instruction. The remote platform will allow any student in isolation or quarantine to continue to participate in the class, and it will ensure that we will be prepared should a new outbreak make it necessary to send our students home and continue instruction remotely. If you have any questions about preparing your classes in a way that will make them adaptable to the special circumstances of the fall semester, please contact your department chair or dean.
Making the Teaching and Research Environment Safe
We are also working on establishing cleaning protocols and norms for hygiene, social distancing and masks in research spaces, classrooms and other instructional settings, and will communicate these in the coming weeks. We will do everything we can to provide you with a safe working environment when we do reassemble.
We recognize that some faculty and staff or their family members may have health conditions that place them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19, and they may require special accommodations for their work on campus. We are working on these accommodations and criteria for qualifying for them. We will also communicate these to you in the coming weeks. I assure you that we will take every reasonable step to ensure your safety, in accord with sound medical advice.
The pandemic has underscored how interdependent we are in today’s world. Our actions may either preserve or endanger the health of others, and others may preserve or endanger our health. As we prepare to reopen the University, let us take precautions not only for our own health, but also for the health of those around us. I believe that working together we can reopen the campus safely.
Please be assured that you and your loved ones are in my prayers.
Sincerely,
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President

Here’s the letter from Princeton President Chris Eisgruber:

Princeton will decide in early July whether the undergraduate teaching program will be online or residential in the fall term. The University is exploring ways to safely and responsibly reopen Princeton’s laboratories, libraries, and other facilities when state law permits.
Message to the Princeton Community from Christopher L. Eisgruber
Dear members of the Princeton community,
Eight weeks ago, I asked the University to move instruction online to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus. My message promised that we would reassess the need for virtual instruction by April 5. In early March, it was still possible to hope that the disruption might prove short-term.
That is no longer so. We confront a durable and damaging public health crisis that will number among American history’s greatest upheavals. I write now to update you about the state of the University and our planning for the year ahead.
I do so keenly aware that this virus has disrupted lives and sown distress throughout our community. Many among us have lost friends or loved ones to COVID-19. Others are struggling to recover from the infection or are experiencing financial hardship as a result of the shutdowns caused by the pandemic. I have heard several heartbreaking stories about the toll this virus has taken on Princeton families. All of you have my deepest sympathies and best wishes.
This crisis has required us to do hard things already, and I am grateful to all of you—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—who have stepped up to help the University and your local communities. There are undoubtedly more hard things to come. That is, I know, an unwelcome thought. The pandemic came upon us swiftly, and its impact and duration are in many ways tough to grasp. As we look ahead, it is important to assess honestly the difficult challenges that confront not only our University, but our country and indeed the world.
In its early days, the pandemic seemed to many of us like a terrible storm or natural disaster. Metaphors about “waves of infection” and “sheltering in place” reinforced that idea. These comparisons, however, fall short of capturing the crisis we face. Storms and natural disasters are sudden events. The recovery process, even when long and difficult, takes place after the event has occurred. The pandemic will not pass quickly. We cannot simply hunker down, pick up the pieces, and return to normalcy.
Neither is the pandemic a war, but its damage, its pervasive impact on our lives, and the shared responsibilities for sacrifice and action that it imposes upon all of us are more akin to wartime than to a natural disaster. The virus has already claimed the lives of more New Jersey residents than World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Unemployment percentages have risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Our most basic tasks, like grocery shopping, have changed overnight. Ordinary recreations, like going to the theater or a ballgame, are forbidden. The pandemic is not a storm that we can wait out, but instead a global struggle that demands the commitment and energy of our society and societies around the world.
Our collective efforts have helped to “flatten the curve” of infections in New Jersey, and it is tempting to hope that we might soon vanquish the virus and return to normal. Epidemiologists and public health experts tell us, however, that until we have either a vaccine or “herd immunity,” the virus will continue to spread. We must prepare for the possibility that new outbreaks will flare in the months ahead, and we must do so when much is still unknown about the disease, its short- and long-term effects, and its treatment. We will be dealing with COVID‑19 for months or longer. This University, like all of America and the world, must proceed accordingly.
To plan successfully in the face of so much uncertainty, we will have to be steadfastly faithful to Princeton’s teaching and research mission; firmly committed to protecting the health and safety of our community; and ready to respond to new information as it becomes available. Our goal will be to restore Princeton’s on-campus, in-person research and teaching enterprise as soon and as fully as is consistent with sound public health principles.
Our ability to restart our in-person teaching and research will depend upon whether we can do so in a way that respects public health and safety protocols. Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti and University Librarian Anne Jarvis are chairing committees to ensure that we can safely and responsibly reopen Princeton’s laboratories, libraries, and other facilities when state law permits. We are optimistic that we can do so, and we are also optimistic about resuming on‑campus graduate advising and instruction this summer and in the fall. Exact dates may vary from program to program, and we will provide additional information as it becomes available.
Undergraduate education presents more vexing questions. On the one hand, everyone at this University values in-person academic engagement and the co-curricular and extracurricular experiences that accompany it. We want to restore residential education as soon as we safely can. On the other hand, the interpersonal engagement that animates undergraduate life makes social distancing difficult. That is partly because undergraduates live in close proximity to one another, but even more fundamentally because they mix constantly and by design in their academic, extracurricular, and social lives.
Many people have pointed out that COVID-19 infections are rarely fatal or even severe in people as young as our undergraduates. That appears to be true, though much remains unknown about the disease. Young people can, however, spread the virus to others. Rapid spread on our campus could require us to quarantine large numbers of students or place additional strains on the local healthcare providers. To bring back our undergraduates, we need to be confident of our ability to mitigate the health risks not only to them, but also to the faculty and staff who instruct and support them, and to the surrounding community.
We do not yet know enough about the path of this pandemic, and the medical response to it, to determine whether that is possible. For example, we do not know whether quick and accurate testing for the virus will be available in the fall. We do not know whether we will have anti-viral remedies that could reduce the lethality of the disease for those who contract it. We do not know how many people on campus and the surrounding community have already been exposed to the disease and might be immune to it.
We want our decision to be as fully informed as possible. We will undoubtedly learn more about the course of the pandemic, and about the techniques available to combat it, over the next two months. For that reason, Princeton will wait until early July before deciding whether our undergraduate teaching program will be online or residential in the fall term. I appreciate that this uncertainty can itself add to the distress of this pandemic, but I am convinced that it is the most responsible way for Princeton to proceed.
Over the past weeks, my colleagues and I considered whether to postpone the beginning of the academic term until later in the fall or even until January. Waiting would obviously yield more information, and we could hope that with time would come new advances in testing or treatment for the disease. That is only a hope, however, not a guarantee. The only guarantee is that we would lose teaching time through inactivity. We have therefore decided that we will proceed with the fall semester calendar as currently scheduled, whether we can teach residentially or not.
Regardless of what else happens, Princeton University is committed to offering the best possible undergraduate education consistent with the health and well-being of our community. We are accordingly asking faculty members to begin planning now under the assumption that their classes will be online in the fall. In the event that we are able to resume residential instruction, we will be able to pivot quickly back to the instructional techniques more familiar to all of us—though we should anticipate that even if we can return to on-campus instruction in the fall, University life will be subject to significant restrictions for as long as the pandemic continues.
Our deans will soon write to all faculty to inform them of new resources available to support their teaching in the year ahead. We have talked to Princeton faculty and students about the six weeks that we spent online this spring and about how to enhance the remote teaching and learning experience. They agree that the most crucial ingredient for successful teaching is personal engagement of students with faculty, teaching assistants, and one another, and that sustaining this engagement requires additional effort and more instructional resources in a remote environment. Such connections are the heart of Princeton’s teaching model, and we will be hiring additional preceptors and teaching assistants so that we can fortify those connections if we are teaching remotely.
We are making these investments because they are critical to our mission and essential even at a time of great economic distress. We have also raised stipends for the upcoming year to support our graduate students, and we will continue to meet the full financial need of every undergraduate student at the University. Meeting these needs will, however, require strict budget discipline and trade-offs across the University, and I want now to say something about our economic outlook.
This public health crisis and the economic chaos accompanying it have affected all of the University’s revenue streams: ailing markets have diminished endowment returns, giving has declined despite the spectacular loyalty and generosity of our donors, indirect cost recoveries are down because we have suspended laboratory research, and the University loses room charges when its dormitories stand empty. At the same time, Princeton has taken on new expenses to support remote instruction and to increase financial aid to families adversely affected by the crisis.
Princeton is blessed to have an exceptional endowment, built up through the generosity of our donors, leveraged by the impact of Annual Giving, and sustained over time by the careful stewardship and disciplined spending policies of past generations. That endowment buffers our University from some of the more extreme pressures affecting other institutions of higher education. It helps us to pursue our mission during the crisis and to emerge from it as energetically as possible. But the endowment does not save us from having to make tough choices or exercise financial discipline; indeed, as I have noted already, endowment returns have declined along with the University’s revenue streams.
People sometimes mistakenly regard endowments as though they were savings accounts or “rainy day funds” that can be “tapped” or “dipped into” during hard times. That is an error: endowments are more like lifetime annuities. They must support active operations of the University each year and last as long as the University does.
Our budget model in fact presupposes that we will “tap” or “dip into” our endowment every year. We spend about 5 percent of our endowment each year by design. Put differently, Princeton spends more than $1.3 billion from its endowment every year, including in years where endowment returns are negative. We spend at a rate such that, absent growth, the entire endowment would be gone in 20 years.
This endowment spending accounts for more than 60 percent of the University’s operating revenue every year, supporting a substantial part of faculty salaries, graduate stipends, financial aid, and other budget lines. We have to sustain that level of annual spending forever or radically reduce future expenditures on our core mission.
We believe that an average annual endowment spend rate slightly above 5 percent is in fact sustainable. With this year’s decline in endowment value, however, we expect to be spending more than 6 percent of our endowment. That rate is not sustainable. We therefore need to reduce the University’s operating expenditures, especially because there is a substantial risk that greater economic distress may lie ahead. That is why Provost Deborah Prentice has rightly called for salary freezes, tighter vacancy management, and reductions to non-essential expenditures.
As we make the tough choices required by economic stress, our priorities are clear: we need first and foremost to protect the quality of our teaching and research commitment. We must also uphold this University’s signature commitment to financial aid. We must do that as efficiently as possible so that we can also sustain the community that is so important to this University. We have thus far avoided the kinds of furloughs and layoffs that have taken place at other universities; while we do not know what the future holds, we want to minimize the risk that such actions might be needed in the future.
These times are not normal, nor are they a short diversion, such that we can simply wait for the pandemic to end. This crisis requires that we do rather than merely wait. We must persist through the crisis, pursuing our mission in the face of these unwanted but unavoidable circumstances with courage, grit, and creativity. That will require all of us to do hard things, made all the harder because we cannot take joy and inspiration from friends, classmates, co‑workers, and neighbors in the ways that we usually do. I am confident that this extraordinary University, this fiercely devoted band of Tigers, is up to the challenge, and that we will eventually come through this unprecedented crisis stronger than ever.
With best wishes,
Chris Eisgruber