“Our entire strategy is built around the protection of the vulnerable,” Daniels replied, “and that starts with faculty and staff.”
The exchange came as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee explored college plans to reopen after a sudden and unprecedented move nationwide to empty campuses in March in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly pathogen. Now, as the novel coronavirus has killed more than 100,000 Americans, educators are racing to develop a blueprint to resume higher education in person.
Christina Paxson, president of Brown University in Rhode Island, and Logan Hampton, president of Lane College in Tennessee, also testified in an unusual hearing with some senators in a committee room and others connected via video links.
Hampton, whose historically black college serves about 1,200 students, urged lawmakers to provide $1 billion for schools like his and others that serve minority populations to weather the crisis. He also said Congress should provide students in need with larger Pell Grants to help ease their financial strain. Hampton pointed out that the virus has devastated many black communities. “We need your investment,” he told the committee.
Whether and when Congress will move on a new coronavirus relief bill is unclear. The Democratic-led House has passed another major funding bill, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken it up.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, urged colleges to use coronavirus testing and other public health measures to bring students back.
“We know that a single lost year of college can lead to a student not graduating and set back career goals,” said Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee. College presidents, he said, can make their campuses “among the safest small communities in our country.”
But Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, said schools must take into account health and economic disparities among racial and ethnic minority groups. She warned against rushing into decisions that could jeopardize thousands of people.
“Colleges and universities need a detailed plan for how to keep the campus community safe, regardless of how the pandemic evolves,” Murray said.
Some Republicans and college leaders have proposed that the federal government offer liability protection to colleges to guard against lawsuits if the reopening yields major outbreaks of the coronavirus. Warren, skeptical of that idea, asked Paxson why liability protection would be needed if colleges were taking appropriate safety measures. “What message does it send to our families and our students?” Warren asked.
Paxson said she favors “very carefully crafted” liability protection.
“I do not want protection from being careless,” she said. “That is not what we’re about.” Any school that is careless about following public health guidelines, she said, “should not be protected in any way, shape or form.” But the Brown president said some college leaders worry that the cost of defending their schools against litigation would siphon money from financial aid and other student services.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he misses college sports. “For me, it’s a release from this job,” he said. But he wondered what would happen if a significant viral outbreak strikes a team.
“I think you would shut it down,” replied Daniels, whose Boilermakers compete in the Big Ten.
“We love sports, too, but first things first,” Daniels said. “That starts with safety of people, players, coaches.”
Murphy asked whether Daniels would support allowing fans to attend outdoor sporting events. The Purdue president said the school estimates it would limit attendance in its 57,000-seat football stadium to about one-fourth of capacity. “Abundance of caution,” he said.
Murphy mused that seating more than 10,000 people during a pandemic still could be “a pretty dangerous endeavor.”