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What should higher education do in the fall? COVID-19 will still be with us -- so should colleges stay shuttered?

Continuing with virtual learning threatens the entire concept of the college experience. Higher education, like K-12, depends on proximity to real people, not squares on a screen. Educators at all levels have dedicated themselves to teaching students during the pandemic, but they know that they’re offering thin pedagogical gruel.

The main reason why the “distance learning revolution” didn’t replace the traditional model is that online learning just isn’t as good. And because of that, it can’t be offered at full price.

Rather than return for another term of online courses, many students will choose to wait until they can attend in person. Because most U.S. colleges and universities are tuition-driven, the resulting enrollment shortfall will pose an existential threat to many of them. Some will not survive. Those losses in turn will have a ripple effect: without their host institutions, the economies of some college towns will go on life support.

But the consequences would be much more than just fiscal. If higher education shrinks, it will become less accessible, less available as an aspiration, less visible as a symbol, less vital to our democracy. Though some policy makers persist in viewing higher education as a personal investment, it’s really a public good. If it shrivels, all society suffers.

Yet reopening colleges without restriction -- partying as if it were 2019 -- seems irresponsible unless vaccines or treatments become available far more quickly than we’re likely to get them.

So we should think about the concept of herd immunity, a state when enough of us have acquired at least transient immunity to the virus -- by prior illness or vaccination -- to prevent its unchecked spread. When a population achieves herd immunity, the virus can’t sustain itself because it doesn’t have enough hosts to jump to.

Herd immunity has received some bad press lately, and justifiably so. The British government initially recommended letting the pandemic rage unchecked to achieve herd immunity, only to make an abrupt about-face when the consequences -- not least to their own prime minister -- became clear. The mistake there was a failure to recognize two facts: that health-care institutions can’t sustain the burden of an uncontrolled transition to herd immunity, and that certain members of the human herd -- older people -- are more vulnerable than others.

But colleges and universities (as well as K-12 schools) may provide a safer way to move toward herd immunity. In fact, if higher education institutions reopen in the fall, it may be the best option for both themselves and public health.

Here’s why: although some college-age people who get COVID-19 become very sick, the overwhelming proportion do not. Many of them will contract the virus even if they stay home from school. Thus, the biggest risks that attend reopening colleges are not to the students themselves.

The groups at risk from reopening are: 1) faculty and staff members who are at higher risk due to age or existing conditions that make them vulnerable, 2) merchants and others in surrounding communities who are at risk for the same reasons, and 3) students’ home communities (or other communities outside the college), to which students travel during breaks, possibly seeding infection.

To reopen responsibly, colleges must minimize the risks to those groups.

Here’s how to limit risks to faculty and staff members: they should be given a choice between working with good personal protective equipment (PPE) or stepping away for a year on furlough pay. Those 60 or older or who are otherwise at high risk should be asked to teach the limited number of remote classes that will have to be a part of a responsible reopening. (We’ll have more to say about remote learning in a moment.)

To mitigate risks to communities in which colleges are located, students should be subject to certain rules. Those rules should: 1) limit off-campus mobility by students to the greatest extent possible and reduce the risks of such mobility and 2) entail frequent testing of students for infection. Colleges should provide PPE for college staff members, local merchants and other people who interact frequently with students. They could place temperature testers at the entrances to classrooms if more sophisticated testing is not yet available.

Students and parents would have to agree explicitly to cooperate, and colleges would have to strictly enforce the rules. The penalty for noncompliance must be absolute: students who can’t or won’t abide by the rules should be sent home.

Colleges would also need robust health programs to treat infected students. Fewer campuses have infirmaries than a generation ago, but it may be time to bring them back. For colleges to take responsibility for their own reopening, they should be able to take care of their own. (That includes mental health, but that’s a separate discussion.)

To address the risks to students’ home communities and other destinations, students and parents would likewise have to commit to no (or very limited) vacation periods and no weekend travel. Students would also have to commit to not leaving campus while contagious. Before being released for any vacation period, students would have to be tested to be sure that they would not infect the communities they visit. Yes, we would need more test kits than we have now, but that’s a likelier bet in the short run than effective treatments or vaccines. And of course, none of this will be possible if community transmission has not receded significantly -- we cannot afford overstressing our hospital system again.

Some students may not want to attend college on these terms. Some parents may forbid it. Colleges need to respect their concerns and make remote learning available for such students. Faculty members at risk could be the ones who provide the remote learning, which would allow these professors to remain working members of the college community.

This whole temporary enterprise would have to be flexibly administered and would require a spirit of collective effort. Until the virus recedes further, students would have to sacrifice some of the freedom that has long been central to the experience of higher learning. In exchange, and if we do this right, we can guard the health of students, faculty and staff, as well as the broader community.

Is college still worth it on these terms? Yes, for multiple reasons. For students, the alternative is isolation at home, with scant other opportunities. For professors and administrators, the alternative may be loss of their livelihoods. But students and college staff aren’t the only ones who would benefit. Higher education belongs to all of us -- and we have to guard its health, too.

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