NAICU Washington Update

Senate HELP Committee Looks at Reopening Colleges in a Pandemic

June 05, 2020

With many questions surrounding how colleges and universities can safely open, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing with college presidents and leading health officials to discuss approaches in handling the fall 2020 semester.

Two NAICU college presidents were invited to participate in the hearing. Logan Hampton, president of Lane College (TN), and Christina Paxson, president of Brown University (RI), provided testimony to the committee.  They were joined by Mitch Daniels, president of Perdue University (IN), and Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, Executive Director of  the American Public Health Association.

Across the testimony from panelists, and comments from senators, it was clear that there are a variety of approaches to starting the fall 2020 semester, which depend on a college’s location, prevalence of the virus, student demographics, college size, and resources, among other things. Options range from fully reopening campuses with face-to-face instruction to a hybrid in-person/online format to going online only. But all options take into consideration the need for testing, tracing, social distancing, a “mask culture” that is enforced by the student code of conduct, and new and creative use of campus space.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TX), committee chair, repeated his mantra from an earlier hearing with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that “all roads to reopening run through testing.” All witnesses agreed that guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on testing students and coordinating with local and state public health agencies are critical to reopening and staying open should a spike in virus cases occur. Paxson commented that the CDC guidelines should be the floor for what colleges should do. Dr. Benjamin agreed and also noted that dealing with coronavirus will be worse than what colleges have experienced with meningitis.

Sen. Alexander said colleges should remain autonomous to determine how they open in the fall, while federal involvement should remain at the level of the CDC and National Institutes of Health continuing testing initiatives, providing testing supplies when states cannot, providing funding for students and institutions, and providing liability protection for colleges.

Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) focused on the need for more CDC and Department of Education guidance for colleges to be able to open safely, and encouraged colleges not to rush to reopen without a fully developed plan.  She voiced particular concern about the education of underrepresented students being disrupted and the disproportionate impact the virus has had on low-income and at-risk students who will return to college with increased needs. All witnesses agreed that one of the big reasons to reopen colleges is to address the inequities students have.  When students are on campus, they have access to quality education, health care, and food and student supports for academics and employment, and safe living arrangements, all of which they may not have at home.

Witnesses also discussed the need to reopen colleges because of the economic role they play in their communities. As key economic drivers and employers in their communities, the decisions college and university leaders make about reopening their campuses will have lasting affects locally.  Many colleges are facing – or have already announced – layoffs.  And, communities and local business are bracing for the possibility of having fewer students and university employees contributing to the economy.  

Sen. Maggie Hassen (D-NH) asked if colleges are seeing an increased need for financial aid due to high unemployment as a result of the coronavirus. In response, the college presidents agreed they are all currently in the process of revisiting aid awards based on the changing financial circumstances of students and families, and that additional federal financial aid will be needed, especially for the particularly vulnerable.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) questioned the liability protection colleges are seeking as if it were protection against wrong-doing. Paxson made clear that colleges are in uncharted territory with the legal aspects of dealing with coronavirus, want carefully crafted protection against frivolous lawsuits, and that colleges are not asking for protection against being careless.

Sen. Alexander closed the hearing encouraging all colleges and universities to encourage their governors to include them in state testing plans to ensure enough tests are available in the right places at the right time for reopening in the fall.

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