College Leaders Seeking to Bring Students Back in the Fall, But Say It Will Look Different

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A handful of college and university presidents made clear that additional support from the federal government will be needed to safely bring students back to campus in the fall, namely the need for testing supplies and clear guidance from health organizations.

At Thursday’s Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on “COVID-19: Going Back to College Safely,” the question was not whether students will go back to college campuses across the country in the fall, but how to do so safely, said committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in his opening remarks.

“Most are working overtime for one of the surest signs that American life is regaining its rhythm: 20 million students going back to college,” Alexander said. He added that colleges should be making those decisions on their own based on what is best for their community and students.

“President Trump and Congress should not be telling the California State University System that it must open its classes in person, or telling Notre Dame it cannot — or telling UT-Knoxville that it must test everyone on the campus or telling Brown University that it cannot,” Alexander said. “Colleges themselves, not Washington D.C., should make those decisions.”

In order to reopen safely, higher education institutions must have robust testing procedures in place, Alexander noted.

“All roads back to college lead through testing. The availability of widespread testing will allow colleges to track and isolate students who have the virus or have been exposed to it, so the rest of the student body doesn’t have to be quarantined,” he said. “Widespread testing not only helps contain the disease; it builds confidence that the campus is safe.”

Questions abound about what campus will look like in the fall. Of the college and university presidents who spoke Thursday during the hearing, there was a consensus that campus will be far from normal for students who return, with Purdue University President Mitch Daniels saying classrooms would be at 50% capacity and the school had obtained more than a mile of plexiglass for use across campus to enforce distancing.

“If you are uneasy about this, please don’t come,” he said. Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana, has been an early proponent of reopening campus in some way, shape or form come fall, penning an op-ed published in The Washington Post outlining his decision to push Purdue toward reopening.

However, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, warned that there is a real risk of a second wave of the novel coronavirus sweeping the country come fall, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has previously warned.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who was the only health official at the hearing, underscored the need for extensive testing on campuses, telling senators that without adequate testing, universities “can’t function at all.”

“All the current evidence shows that we will continue to have undetected, broad community spread of COVID-19 and will continue to do so for many months to come,” he said.

Alexander recommended that college and university officials work closely with their local health departments and state governors to secure sufficient testing and contact tracing procedures, particularly if they do not have a hospital or health system on campus.

Murray said each higher education institution needs to have detailed plans on what reopening will look like for their respective campuses, and to do so, they will need guidance from the federal government on how to operate while following best practices for things like “how to feed and house students safely and how to social distance in classrooms.”

Murray added, while she is fighting for additional funding from the federal government for higher education institutions, she is also pushing the Department of Education (ED) and Trump administration to implement the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act as Congress intended.

After facing heavy criticism over guidance that would limit federal emergency student grants to only Title IV- eligible students, ED last month reversed course, saying it would not enforce that guidance. However, those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and undocumented students, would still be excluded from the funding due to statutory language from the 1996 welfare reform law.

It is unclear what will happen with House Democrats’ latest federal coronavirus relief package, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that the chamber is still assessing what implications previous aid will have on the deficit before considering additional coronavirus-related aid and said the package will not pass in its current form.

To that end, NASFAA joined in a letter urging Senate leadership for an additional $46.6 billion in funding for higher education to help offset the financial disruptions caused by the coronavirus. Speaking to the college presidents present at the hearing, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he hopes the higher education community puts pressure on the Senate majority to appropriate more funding for both students and institutions.

Logan Hampton, president of Lane College in Tennessee, served as witness for the hearing representing the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) community. He said it was imperative that the federal government allocated additional funding for higher education, noting that an overwhelming amount of his students reported the ongoing pandemic adversely impacted their or their family’s financial situation.

Hampton urged Congress for an additional $1 billion for HBCUs, tribal colleges, and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Additionally, he called for doubling the maximum Pell Grant award, which is set at $6,345 for the 2020-21 award year.

“We need help from the federal government. Yes we need your guidelines, but we also need your investment. Our students need your investment,” he said. “Doubling Pell Grant would go a long way to helping them afford attending institutions of higher education.”

Brown University President Christina Paxson said her school would not reopen in the fall unless it was safe to do and added that the school plans to test all students and employees for COVID-19 as they return to campus.

“Putting these elements in place will require an extraordinary effort, and will create additional financial pressure on colleges and universities,” she said. Paxson also called for additional funding so the school could maintain its current level of financial aid for students.

“Universities can’t afford to lose a generation of students,” Paxson said.


Publication Date: 6/4/2020

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