Dive Brief:

  • In testimony before the Senate’s health and education committee Thursday, three college presidents outlined their plans to reopen campuses for the fall term, detailing the potentially costly precautions they would take to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
  • The trio of executives highlighted the need for robust testing for the virus, contact-tracing measures and social-distancing tactics.
  • One of them, the president of an HBCU in Tennessee, said Congress should invest at least $1 billion in minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and double the maximum federal Pell Grant award to ensure disadvantaged students can return to college. 

Dive Insight:

College presidents have a vast array of considerations as they work through how to safely restart campus operations for the coming academic year. A majority of institutions that have announced their plans have said they want to offer in-person classes if public health conditions allow.

Two of the three presidents on Thursday’s panel, Purdue University’s Mitch Daniels and Brown University’s Christina Paxson, have been vocal about their desire to reopen campuses. The latter wrote an essay on the topic for The New York Times in April, calling it a “national priority.”

Both described intensive safeguards they will implement to ensure the health of students and employees. 

Daniels said Purdue will reduce the occupancy of its classrooms by half, require at least 10 feet of space between students and faculty in classes, and provide a mobile plexiglass barrier for added protection. The university has purchased “a mile” of plexiglass to date, he said during the hearing.

It will also rearrange campus living quarters, with most rooms housing only one student, Daniels said. Officials have removed at least 1,000 beds, “leaving nothing to chance,” he said, adding that the cost to carry out these protections is in the “tens of millions of dollars.” 

Paxson said Brown is exploring the best way to test a wide contingent of students for the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended colleges screen every student for coronavirus, but in her op-ed, Paxson wrote that institutions must be able to test all students when they arrive on campus and throughout the year. She told lawmakers the college will consider “batch testing,” in which a sample of students is tested. They might also test wastewater in a residence hall as a lower-cost way to determine if students living there have contracted the virus. 

However, the measures the presidents detailed could prove expensive, and therefore improbable for lesser-resourced institutions. And coronavirus testing is not yet widely available.  

It’s noteworthy then, that the third president on the panel stressed that Congress needs to bolster MSIs to prepare them for a financially challenging year. Many private HBCUs, in particular, have been historically underfunded. 

Logan Hampton, the president of Lane College in Tennessee, said his institution needs millions of dollars to start the academic year with a mix of face-to-face and online classes. He said he would use federal aid to set up an online infrastructure and purchase devices. 

Doubling the maximum Pell Grant award — which is $6,345 for the 2020-21 academic year — is also important to help students impacted by the coronavirus, he said. Several lawmakers noted that the virus disproportionately affects people of color, as well as low-income students.

The higher ed sector has been struggling. The latest round of federal relief provided $14 billion, about half of which was set aside for student emergency grants. However, distribution of that money has been complicated by unclear and conflicting guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, industry officials say.

The American Council on Education (ACE) has requested at least $47 billion in federal aid in the next relief bill. ACE reiterated colleges’ tough financial position in a letter Wednesday to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair and ranking member of the Senate health and education committee, respectively.

“Institutions are not asking for the federal government to make them whole, but they need support if they are to have any chance at returning to something resembling normal operations,” ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote.

Mitchell also repeated ACE’s earlier request that Congress pass short-term liability protections for colleges shielding them from lawsuits associated with the spread of the coronavirus. Alexander indicated his support for such protections during the hearing. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also has sought to include liability protections for businesses in the next aid bill.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), attacked the concept during the hearing, saying that colleges are trying to shed their responsibility to secure campuses.

Paxson disagreed, saying she does not want “protection from being careless.”

“If we are careless, if we don’t follow guidelines, that’s not something that should be protected in any way, shape or form,” Paxson said. 

Liability protections could ease stress for college officials, experts say, given that the coronavirus is unprecedented and the legal system hasn’t established clear measures colleges should take to mitigate it. Still, “bad actors” who flout health guidance should be held accountable, ACE wrote in an earlier letter to lawmakers.

During the hearing, a couple of legislators asked about safeguarding student-athletes from the virus, as well as the feasibility of hosting sporting events on campus. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he was worried that Daniels planned to allow fans back to its football stadium, which seats around 57,000, even though the university would not permit it to exceed one-fourth of its capacity, he said.

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