The Surest Step Toward Normalcy

The fundamental issue isn't whether colleges should reopen in August, writes Lamar Alexander, but how institutions can do it safely.

May 28, 2020
 
 
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The question for administrators of the nation’s roughly 6,000 colleges and 100,000 schools is not whether to reopen in August, but how to do it safely. Most are working overtime to get ready for the surest sign that American life is regaining its rhythm: 70 million students going back to school.

Purdue University, the University of South Carolina, Rice University, Creighton University and the University of Notre Dame will finish in-person classes before Thanksgiving to avoid further spread of COVID-19 during flu season. Vanderbilt University will require face masks in classrooms. To make social distancing easier, colleges are rescheduling classrooms usually empty in early mornings, evenings, weekends and summer. Concerts and parties are out. Grab-and-go meal options, flu shots, and temperature checks are in. Almost all of Tennessee’s 127 higher education institutions will open in person, but they want governments to create liability protection against being sued if a student becomes sick. Campuses will offer more online courses. Bucking the trend, California’s state system will offer most of its courses only online.

Schools for K-12 students will modify bus routes, use distance learning and emphasize hygiene, as Miami-Dade County is doing. Plans will vary depending on community characteristics and the prevalence of the virus. Government and unions should relax rules to give schools more flexibility to revise the academic calendar, stagger class times and adjust class sizes. This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an updated set of guidelines for safely going back to college and school.

Eventually, all roads back to college and school lead through testing -- then tracking and isolating students who have the virus or have been exposed to it, so the rest of the student body doesn’t have to be quarantined. Campuses are exploring using mobile phone apps for tracking and creating isolation dormitories for students who have the virus or have been exposed, as the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is doing.

Widespread testing not only helps contain the disease; it also builds confidence that the campus is safe. Fortunately, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir says 40 to 50 million tests will be available per month by September. That is four to five times today’s number -- and today’s number is twice as many as any other country. Dr. Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, now leads a competitive “shark tank” enterprise at the National Institutes of Health to discover new ways to conduct tens of millions of additional accurate tests with quick results.

Should everyone on a campus be tested? Colleges should at least test randomly to detect asymptomatic students and have the ability to test everyone in certain categories: health care, food service and cleaning workers; older faculty; students with medical conditions or who are arriving from virus hot spots; all students in a class or dormitory where a person tests positive for the virus.

Administrators ask: Where will I find tests? The answer is, consult your local health department and your governor. Each state submits a monthly plan to the federal government outlining testing supplies and needs. Admiral Giroir’s team then helps fill the gaps. My recommendation: you want your college’s testing needs to be in your state plan. An institution can also contract directly with laboratories who conduct tests, review the Food and Drug Administration list of authorized tests, or ask for help from a nearby large university or hospital that has created its own tests.

COVID-19 plans should last for at least a year. The government is pursuing vaccines at warp speed, but no one expects one by August. In the second semester, colleges should provide more tests, more treatments, better contact tracing and vaccines -- amid the flu season and the return of COVID-19. It will be the fall of 2021 before college life approaches normal.

Going back to college safely is made easier because younger people have been less hurt by COVID-19. Nevertheless, young Americans may carry the disease to more vulnerable people. And Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned against “cavalierly” assuming that children and young adults are not at risk.

But health risks are not the only risks. One lost year of college can set back a career. Already, disruption of projects has erased much of the progress made with record levels of research funding Congress gave universities in the past five years. Many American colleges -- over all considered the best in the world -- will be permanently damaged or even closed if they remain, in Brown University president Christina Paxson’s words, “ghost towns.”

Two-thirds of college students want to return to campus, according to an Axios survey. At Purdue University, tuition deposits by incoming freshmen broke last year’s record. Colleges are microcities. Wise leaders have a responsibility to make them among the safest small communities in which to live and work during this next year. In doing so, they will help our country take its surest step toward normalcy.

Bio

Lamar Alexander is chairman of U.S. Senate’s health and education committee. He was U.S. education secretary for George H. W. Bush and president of the University of Tennessee.

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