What Awaits Colleges This Winter?

David R. Harris shares three lessons his campus has already learned as students have returned for the new term amid some of the worst days of the pandemic.

February 2, 2021
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My young daughter knows what it means when I get the “Do you have a minute?” text from Dean Fran’Cee. When I return from the phone call I make in response, she asks, “Another positive?”

So I knew it was bad news on a recent Saturday morning when Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, Union College’s vice president for student affairs, skipped the text and just called me, the institution’s president. On the last day of testing, at the end of our first week of winter term, 12 students on our campus had tested positive for COVID-19. That brought our total number of student positives for the term to 51, about twice the number we experienced during all of fall term.

Union is on a trimester schedule. This was a huge advantage in the fall, as we started two to four weeks after most semester-oriented institutions. We learned from our peers that some students would arrive COVID-19-positive and largely asymptomatic, but that with aggressive testing, isolation and quarantining, we should be able to minimize the number of subsequent cases. Like almost every small college that tested its students regularly, we had far fewer COVID-19 cases last semester than anticipated.

The situation is very different this term. Most colleges operating with semester schedules do not return until late January or early mid-February. Our first day of classes was Jan. 11, so this time we are the trailblazers. I’m pining for what now appear to have been the “easy” days of fall.

On the first day of our winter term, the United States reported almost 223,000 cases, compared to about 33,300 cases on the first day of the fall term. A year of politicization of the virus -- combined with fatigue over masks, social distancing and other public health measures -- has taken its toll on compliance. Nearly 450,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, but most young people have experienced few if any symptoms, which has only bolstered their tendencies to minimize personal risks.

So what can peers learn from us?

First, do not expect that the actions you took in the fall will have the same effects this winter. In preparation for the students’ return to our campus this term, we decided to increase testing from once to twice per week. We secured more rooms for students who test positive and for those who are their close contacts. We implemented stricter and clearer penalties for violating policies. We installed fire pits across campus, waived co-pays for employee mental health appointments, shared links to free online fitness classes and announced myriad virtual events and activities. I hate to think what we would be facing if we had approached this term with fall 2020 policies and practices.

Second, do not bring students back to campus unless you are prepared to have more positive cases -- perhaps significantly more. That means more students who have to be quarantined, more stress across campus and among parents, more policy violations, and a higher risk that you will have to send all students home before the term ends. Even with enhanced preventative measures, this term has been intense. At the end of week one, we had more than doubled the number of student cases we had during the entire 10 weeks of fall term. More than 100 students had already been quarantined, spending two weeks at home or in a hotel room, unable to fully participate in face-to-face classes.

Following the example of higher education institutions that experienced spikes last term, we implemented a two-week campus quarantine on Jan. 17. Our expectation was that limiting interactions on campus and with external communities would allow us to slow the spread. At the end of last week, I announced that our number of positives had declined significantly, and the campus quarantine would end two days early. We’ve returned to our new normal of masks and distancing, keenly aware that another spike could be around the corner.

Third, as monumental and difficult as it is to confront the daily challenges of COVID-19, you must find a way to pursue the core mission. Our mission is to develop every student to lead, with wisdom, empathy and courage, in ways large and small, now and across multiple tomorrows. Our community expects that Union will protect the health of its students, administrators and faculty members and will avoid the existential threats that too many colleges have experienced in recent years, but it also expects more. My senior leadership team and our whole community must find the time, energy and creativity to ensure that Union not only survives but also thrives.

It is a struggle to see beyond all of the immediate challenges and requests, but somehow, we are getting it done. Formal and informal daily check-in conversations with students, staff and faculty members help us make more informed decisions and pivot when needed -- such as when we opened more study spaces for students whose mental health and academic progress were suffering from the isolation of a campus quarantine. Talking with our community members also brings me something that is much needed this year: joy.

In addition to these experiences, here’s what I would share with another college president who is wondering whether to bring students back to campus or have a fully online term. A long time ago, I learned that in difficult situations -- and COVID-19 is the most difficult one I have faced -- you’ll rarely find a path that makes everyone happy. That recognition drives me to select the path that I believe will benefit the most people and harm the fewest. When people complain and argue that they should be exceptions, it is much easier to respond when you know you have made policy for the right reasons, not because it will face the least resistance.

The question of what colleges and universities should do this term has no single right answer -- just as there is no easy answer for students and parents debating whether to return to campus. We brought students back with our eyes wide-open. We knew that the fall was the opening act for the winter. We couldn’t have known just how much more difficult this term would be, or how much less energy we would have to confront the new challenges. It will be many weeks, and even months, before the vaccine is widely available.

What keeps us as senior administrators going -- and knowing we made the right call for Union -- are those daily conversations with students, faculty and staff that reveal just how committed they are to doing what it takes for all of us to succeed. It’s also knowing how much more students are learning and growing by being on this campus, even with limited face-to-face interactions, in and out of the classroom.

With the right mix of wisdom, empathy and courage, I am confident that we will not only survive but also thrive.

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David R. Harris is president of Union College.


David R. Harris

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