Months after the coronavirus pandemic first shuttered colleges and universities throughout the United States, many institutions of higher education are barely better equipped to bring students, faculty and staff safely back to campus than they were in March 2020. In fact, with state budgets decimated by unprecedented demands and sharp declines in revenue, many campuses are even less prepared to do so.
We cannot allow America’s colleges and universities to be diminished when they are so essential to fulfilling our individual and societal aspirations. We cannot stand by as repercussions of the pandemic result in unprecedented faculty and staff layoffs and push large numbers of students out of higher education. This is a national imperative, requiring New Deal-level funding and focus. Only the federal government can provide the scale of support needed to safely reopen our colleges and universities, preserve and expand the essential contributions they make to the economy and to civic life, and ensure they are never again so dependent on revenue from in-person enrollment that they are tempted to bring students to campus when it’s not safe to do so. The Biden administration’s proposal for an American Rescue Plan is a vital first step on this road.
This past spring, as the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, institutions of higher education faced an unsolvable bind. Lacking any guidance from the Trump-DeVos administration, and dependent on revenue from enrollment and on-campus housing, meal plans and other services, they wrestled with how to reopen safely for the fall semester, or whether to reopen at all.
In the ensuing months, often under pressure from governors and state legislatures, higher education leaders created a patchwork of institutional policies to safely bring students, faculty and staff back to campus. Despite great effort -- and some notable successes -- the fall semester at many institutions was a mess. Many colleges opened in person, then hastily moved back online as campuses became viral hot spots. Communities with large student populations have seen their death rates soar above the national average. It didn’t have to be this way.
The first order of business is to bring the pandemic under control. The recent rollout of coronavirus vaccines is an obvious and important step in the right direction, and vaccination -- prioritizing all members of the campus community who are required to be physically present on site -- will be crucial. But mask mandates, limits on gathering size and especially social distancing will also continue to be important tools in stopping the spread of the virus. The use of hybrid educational models, while not ideal, can reduce the number of people on a campus at any given point. Staff members whose jobs allow them to remain off campus should be allowed to telecommute. Workers who are at risk or who must care for family members should be allowed to work from home or given alternative assignments.
All campus employees should have access to affordable health care and paid medical leave for when they are sick or need to care for family members. Ensuring access to medical care by building upon the successes of the Affordable Care Act will help provide workers with resources to stay healthy and, should they become sick, seek treatment in both the short and the long term. If exposed to the virus or feeling ill, workers should not have to choose between keeping their jobs and protecting their communities by isolating.
Colleges and universities must also implement robust testing, tracing and isolation programs in order to identify and stop outbreaks before they spread. Testing must be widespread and regular in order to identify presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. Daily self-screening by students, faculty and staff who will be on campus should supplement that testing. Every institution that will be open in person needs to develop the capacity to conduct rapid contact tracing for anyone who has had close contact with an infected individual, while ensuring confidentiality. Members of the campus community should be isolated if they have symptoms of COVID-19, have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who is symptomatic or has tested positive. Students should be provided with physically distanced housing while in isolation.
For such measures to work, trust is essential. The faculty should make decisions about how any particular class will be taught and how research will be carried out since they know best how to teach their courses and conduct research. Clear communication about expectations and policies, as well as opportunities for giving feedback, are essential. Administrators, faculty members and students should collaboratively implement virus mitigation procedures. It is not enough to tell students what they cannot do; administrators must provide safe alternatives for students to meet their educational, physical and social needs. While institutions should actively enforce policies aimed at virus mitigation, sanctions should not be overly punitive. Threats of expulsion from campus will push risky behavior off campus and will undermine the trust necessary to conduct effective surveillance of viral outbreaks.
Personal protective equipment will be another important tool for safely reopening college campuses. In addition to on-campus mask mandates, colleges should ensure that personal protective equipment is available to all employees who require it. Hand-sanitizing stations should be readily accessible, and medical PPE should be available to campus health workers. Colleges and universities should make appropriate PPE available to faculty and staff who work in close quarters or whose job duties may involve a higher possibility of contact with COVID-19-positive individuals. They should train all staff and faculty on proper use of PPE and adequately outfit staff members with PPE so they can carry out appropriate sanitization. Campus administrations should not ask faculty or students to take responsibility for sanitizing classrooms.
Many, if not most, campus facilities will need new safeguards to ensure the health of the campus community. Campus HVAC systems should be upgraded to MERV 13, and indoor ventilation and airflow must be improved. Workspaces must allow for social distancing, with physical barriers such as Plexiglas for workers whose jobs require a high degree of in-person interactions. Enhanced, daily cleaning of classrooms and workspaces will be necessary, with high-touch surfaces receiving more frequent sanitization.
Colleges and universities must also meet the mental health needs brought on by the pandemic, whether caused by ongoing health challenges of people who’ve become sick or the stresses of decreased social interactions among otherwise healthy people. They should ensure that students, staff and faculty have access to mental health professionals as needed and that on-campus mental health counseling is available to students. These mental health challenges will not disappear with the virus; the strains and challenges will continue as people process months of isolation and disruption, and colleges must be prepared to meet this ongoing need.
All these measures are necessary -- and costly. State budgets have been drained by unprecedented demands and declining revenues. Congress must act immediately to provide New Deal-level funding for institutions of higher education, especially the public institutions that educate the vast majority of students. Over the years to come, we must ensure that our colleges and universities have the resources they need to provide the safe, just and inclusive education that serves the common good and can help transform our society.
Funds should go toward providing instruction, supporting students and paying the staff who do that work, and lowering tuition and fees. They should also be used to help address historic inequities that have been sharpened during the pandemic; lower-income students and students of color have been most likely to forgo higher education during the last several months. Finally, funding should be earmarked for improving campus facilities to provide a safe campus environment.
The task of safely reopening our colleges and universities is a historic challenge, one that will require a vast commitment and unprecedented collaboration. But it is within our grasp. Meeting this challenge not only will allow for the continuation of high-quality undergraduate and graduate education and innovative research, but it will also prepare us for the future health challenges we will surely face.