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Purdue University president Mitch Daniels testifies remotely at Thursday's Senate hearing.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

As colleges decide whether to resume classroom instruction as soon as two months from now, Republican senators on Thursday emphasized the importance of campuses reopening, saying it would help restore a sense of normalcy, allow higher education employees to return to work and prevent students from falling behind or dropping out entirely.

But illustrating a division with Democrats, who called for the creation of stronger health-care regulations for reopening, Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the chamber's education committee, said colleges should be able to make their decisions with little government interference. An exception, he said, is the creation of policies pushed by college groups and backed by Senate Republicans to protect colleges from being sued should they reopen and students or workers contract COVID-19.

Otherwise, Alexander said at the Thursday hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, "decisions should be left to individual colleges."

But Democratic senators, noting the inevitability of the virus appearing on college campuses, criticized the Trump administration for not creating rules aimed at protecting the health of faculty or other college workers, or releasing more detailed standards for institutions, like how much coronavirus testing should be done.

Colleges are trying to decide whether to reopen while the nation continues to wrestle to control COVID-19 and as streets in every state of the country see protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and racism in society. With that backdrop, lawmakers as well as the presidents of Purdue and Brown Universities and Lane College raised concerns at the hearing about the pandemic exacerbating racial disparities in higher education, as the recession makes it harder for lower-income students to continue going to college.

Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the committee, and other senators called for Congress to address the fact that African Americans and other students from minority groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the closure of college campuses.

“It is our job to ensure that students who have been and will continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 don't see their education suffer,” Murray said.

In inviting the three college presidents, Alexander featured institutions in various stages of moving toward reopening. As he has in news media appearances during past couple of weeks, Alexander encouraged campuses to reopen, saying, “The question for administrators is not whether to reopen in August, but how to do it wisely.”

However, Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said while testifying remotely that with the pandemic continuing to spread, “we should assume for planning purposes that there will be people on campus with COVID-19 infections regardless of what precautions are taken.”

Federal Guidelines

Democrats said that's why more safeguards should be in place.

“I’m very concerned about not only the safety and health of undergraduate students but of the faculty and staff,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin.

Colleges “need very clear rules of the road and workers need to know they are protected,” said Baldwin.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has come under criticism from labor groups for not creating emergency safety standards during the pandemic. Baldwin is pushing for a bill she co-sponsored, which would require OSHA to create standards that would be included in the next coronavirus relief package.

College and university groups also have criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for not issuing more detailed advice on what institutions should be doing to protect campuses from the disease. And Murray said the CDC and the Education Department need to create a "detailed plan for how to keep colleges safe."

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, criticized guidelines created by the CDC for higher education, saying, “There’s not a mention of testing.”

Senators also squabbled over the adequacy of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.

“All roads back to reopening lead through testing,” Alexander said, noting that beyond helping to quarantine sick students, widespread testing for the virus helps build confidence the campus is safe.

He cited government estimates that 40 million to 50 million tests a month would be available by September, four or five times as many as now. Murray, however, said, “we are not anywhere close” to having enough tests.

Debate Over Liability Protection

The hearing also illustrated divisions over whether Congress will shield colleges from coronavirus-related legal liability. A key concern for college presidents, Alexander said, is to be protected from lawsuits should students or staff members get sick. Alexander has said liability protection is a precondition for Senate Republicans to support another federal coronavirus relief package.

But Murray has opposed the idea. At the hearing, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the sight of colleges pushing for protection from being held responsible for possible illnesses is hardly reassuring to students and their families.

“Does it make you more comfortable or less comfortable as the parent of an incoming student?” Warren asked Christina Paxson, Brown University's president. Both participated in the hearing remotely.

Paxson responded that institutions are worried that even if they act “scrupulously,” they would still face class-action lawsuits. “The cost of defending lawsuits will take money from financial aid and all the services we provide,” Paxson said.

In a report, Third Way, New America, the Center for American Progress, the Century Foundation, the Institute for College Access and Success and Veterans Education Success said, “The decision of whether to operate in person this fall will literally be one of a college’s bottom line versus the health and wellbeing of their students and employees.”

Many private colleges are under pressure to reopen classrooms because students would object to paying high prices for online education, the report said, and protecting them from lawsuits will allow them to reopen without facing consequences if students get sick. “The higher education lobby is further trying to stack the decision to operate in person against students by asking for immunity from Congress in case students get sick when they come back,” the groups said.

Alexander didn't respond to the demand for worker-protections standards. But he called for government to play a limited role in decisions on whether to reopen campuses.

“President Trump and Congress should not be telling the California State University system that it has to open its classes in person, or telling Notre Dame it cannot -- or telling UT that it must test everyone on the campus or telling Brown University that it cannot. Colleges themselves, not Washington, D.C., should make those decisions,” he said.

Agreeing was Purdue's president, Mitch Daniels.

“You know as every student is different, every school in the country is unique in some way,” Daniels said. “Others will find better answers than we have, and I hope we’ll be free to copy them.”

Senators from both parties and the college presidents expressed concern about students who lost jobs during the pandemic being able to afford to attend.

“We know that a single lost year of college can lead to a student not graduating from college and set back career goals,” Alexander said.

Daniels said Purdue has made gains in attracting more low-income and first-generation students. “I worry that will be set back,” he said. Paxson and Lane College’s president, Logan Hampton, called for increasing spending on Pell Grants and other forms of student aid.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, also worried that should colleges stay closed, their students will be stuck without degrees or certificates and unable to repay student loans.

Daniels at the hearing outlined extensive steps Purdue is taking in order to reopen, including requiring students be at least 10 feet away from faculty members, and divided by Plexiglas.

He said the university had bought a mile of Plexiglas.

That and other precautions have cost tens of millions of dollars, Daniels said. “But we want to leave nothing to chance.”

With Congress considering taking up another coronavirus relief package, the American Council on Education in a letter to congressional leaders seeking more federal aid said the cost of trying to reopen campuses only adds to the financial problems colleges face.

"Effectively and safely reopening campuses is constrained by the large revenue losses and significant new expenses that colleges and universities have already experienced and will continue to face," the letter said. Hampton also called on Congress to give historically black colleges and universities, and other institutions that serve indigenous tribes and minorities, an additional $1 billion.

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