Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University in Boston.
The pandemic, we realized, is going to be endemic: an ongoing threat to manage, not a brief blip in history, cleanly wiped out by a miracle vaccine. The science will take time. But the world cannot.
To imagine that we can return to our prior sense of normal at the start of this new semester — or even the start of the next academic year in fall 2021 — feels increasingly like wishful thinking. Even if the rosiest prediction of a successful vaccine by the winter comes true, epidemiologists say it will mark just the start of an eradication effort, not the endpoint.
Manufacturing enough doses to vaccinate the entire country, let alone the world, will take many months. A recent national survey shows that just 62 percent of Americans would accept a vaccine — below the 70 percent that most experts say is the minimum needed to achieve herd immunity. And we don’t yet know the strength and duration of the immunity that will be conferred, making it likely that the world will experience covid-19 outbreaks, albeit at lower levels, for years.
This will likely make covid-19 at least a four-to-five-year problem, epidemiologists say. Pausing in-person education that long would be devastating to colleges and their students. And even a one-year delay would be a substantial challenge. It would disproportionately hurt low-income students who spent the spring continuing their studies online, without adequate technology, sometimes in overcrowded and even traumatic living conditions. And it would impair universities’ ability to discover solutions that would make the world safer — from this pandemic, and from ones that are yet to come.
Once we decided to reopen Northeastern, we had to figure out how to do so. The reopening plan’s core principle, we decided, would be safeguarding the health and safety of our campus community and nearby neighborhoods. The planning would need to be far more comprehensive than hybrid classrooms, coronavirus testing and takeout meals.
The plans hinge on developing a large-scale operation for regular covid-19 testing that does not rely on the chokepoint of commercial testing labs. As a research university, we have the space and expertise to administer and process thousands of tests each day, with the 24-hour turnaround time that is necessary to get an accurate snapshot of community health. We are using all of the tools at our disposal to ensure that students, faculty and staff are tested regularly, even if they are asymptomatic. And we have comprehensive tracing and quarantining protocols in place so we can contain an outbreak quickly and effectively.
Other needed changes: improving airflow systems, instituting a continuous cleaning and sanitizing regimen, and reducing density in residence halls and classrooms.
Fostering a community culture of mask-wearing, physical distancing and personal hygiene is essential, and that requires putting faith in students. At Northeastern, extensive surveys, focus groups and monitoring of social media make it clear that our students want to return to campus, and stay. Their parents want them here, too. That gives students a powerful incentive to mask up and act responsibly.
Regardless of whether colleges invite students back, they might be returning anyway. Across the country, thousands of students limited to taking classes online this fall are nevertheless crowding into off-campus apartments, often without the protection of testing and behavior protocols. Campuswide testing programs will have a positive effect beyond the campus, helping to contain and control the spread of the virus in the neighborhoods where students live.
The decision to reopen is high-stakes, and hardly simple. Every university has different circumstances to contend with. Other nations in Europe and Asia have given us a blueprint to manage covid-19 effectively and not just muddle through, waiting for a vaccine to come to the rescue.
Universities need to take control of the virus — and show our communities how to do the same.