For some colleges and universities, the decision to bring back in-person research and instruction this fall is a matter of basic economic survival. But even where it is not, the pandemic crisis threatens the essence of college life. No distance-learning program, regardless of how well thought-out or planned it is, can replace the interactions among students, faculty and others that normally take place on college campuses.
Our students have expressed frustration about taking all of their classes online. What’s more, some from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds haven’t had access to the technology, resources or quiet spaces necessary for effective distance learning.
For all of these reasons, we urge campuses to bring students and in-person instruction back for the fall term. A return to in-person instruction should follow a strategy based on the latest science, balanced with efforts to restore campus life — with particular care for those who are most likely to suffer adverse health effects from covid-19. Although college students generally fall into an age category that has not experienced significant negative impacts or mortality because of the coronavirus, others they interact with, such as faculty and staff, may be at higher risk.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all roadmap for schools looking to bring students back to campus. But there are a few considerations and recommendations that apply to potential solutions.
First, institutions should put in place a comprehensive testing and contact tracing program for any student attending class in person or living on campus, any faculty member offering instruction, or any support staff or administrators regularly interacting with students. They should consider testing faculty, staff and students when they arrive on campus (or require the results from a recent diagnostic test before returning) and continue a regular testing regimen as the school year goes on. Future scientific innovations, such as serology tests that can accurately determine who might be immune to the virus, will give academic communities even greater reassurance.
Many colleges already have communications systems that allow them to notify students and affiliates of emergency situations on campus via SMS or email. These systems should be adapted to furnish test results, inform recipients of possible exposure to the virus and assist in contact tracing when cases are identified.
Second, institutions should consider how they will handle residential and other on-campus environments where social distancing may be difficult. Additional monitoring of people entering campus buildings, such as through temperature checks, will probably become the norm. Given that many universities do not have excess residential capacity or space, it will be difficult to create physical distance between students in dormitories. Staggered returns to campus might be needed. In addition to promoting hand hygiene, as well as mandating mask-wearing while in most on-campus buildings, institutions should engage in additional cleaning and sanitation of high-traffic areas such as bathrooms, gyms and common rooms, to build confidence in a return to on-campus life.
Third, because faculty and administrators on campuses are more likely to be older or have health conditions that make them more susceptible to covid-19, special attention must be paid to mitigating risk for the more vulnerable. This may mean a continuation of distance learning in some cases, or staggering course offerings so that the initial terms of the 2020-2021 academic year (the fall and winter quarters at Stanford University, for example) are offered only by younger faculty members, or if the science warrants, by those who test positive for protective antibodies from the virus.
Fourth, colleges and universities should ensure that they are coordinating the return of students not only with university-affiliated medical centers, but also health-care facilities in surrounding communities. Information-sharing and coordination with local and state public health authorities are key to ensure overall care capacity in the community.
Finally, institutions should consider placing travel restrictions on faculty, students and staff during the academic term. At the very least, institutions should track any trips that individuals take once instruction has started. Institutions might apply even more stringent requirements to those who engage in international travel or who travel to domestic hotspots. That could include testing upon return, with a mandatory off-campus quarantine if individuals exhibit symptoms or test positive for the virus.
Colleges and universities have a lot of work to do if they want to welcome students back on campus this fall. But in-person instruction, and the benefits that accompany student life in institutions across the United States, are essential parts of the higher-learning experience. It’s an effort well worth making.