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Colleges and universities around the country will have sufficient testing capacity and are taking the needed steps to safely reopen their physical campuses this fall, the head of the U.S. Senate’s education committee said in a discussion with reporters Thursday. He also vowed that Senate Republicans would ensure that colleges receive liability protection from potential lawsuits by students or employees who get sick if they return to campus – if Congress passes more legislation regarding COVID-19.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is retiring this year, said he viewed the opening of schools and college campuses this fall as essential to restoring the American economy and society to a “sense of normalcy.”

“The surest sign that we’re beginning to regain the rhythm of American life will come when 70 million students go back to school and to college this fall,” Alexander said.

The senator said he held a call Thursday morning with leaders from 90 of Tennessee’s 127 postsecondary institutions and that “all of them are planning to resume in-person classes in August” and are “using a variety of techniques to make sure their campus is safe.”

Alexander repeated several times that the keys to defeating the coronavirus, and to reopening campuses, were testing, treatments and vaccines, and said he was confident that colleges would have sufficient testing by this summer to enable them to quarantine students and staff members who were either infected or exposed.

He said testing was one of the three major concerns expressed by Tennessee college leaders he spoke with this morning, along with issues of liability and funding “flexibility.”

On liability, “they don’t want to be sued if they reopen their school and somebody gets sick,” Alexander said, adding that Congress “won’t pass another COVID bill unless it has liability protection.” He clarified later that he could not promise that Congress would pass a bill providing such protection, only that “if another COVID bill passes … you can be sure that Republican senators will insist that it provides liability protection for schools and businesses.”

On funding, he said the presidents want “more flexibility in any funding that we provide for colleges and in the funding we’ve already provided” as part of the CARES Act. He cited legislation filed this month that would give states more flexibility in how they use those already distributed funds.

Alexander said it was an “open question on whether there will be more funding for states and schools” coming from the federal government. “We should do that carefully,” he said, since Congress had “appropriated $3 trillion in about three weeks and some of that money hasn’t even been sent to the states yet.”

A few other choice comments from Alexander:

  • In response to a reporter’s question about whether COVID-19-related immigration restrictions may stem the flow of international students to American colleges, he reiterated that the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is through testing, treatments and vaccines -- “not to restrict students who come from other countries to get their graduate degrees … talented students who companies here want to hire.”
  • In describing some of the steps colleges should take to ensure physical distancing, he referred to them as “notorious wasters of space” and said they could spread their classes into the evenings and weekends.

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