States, Colleges Navigate Fall Plans Amid Pressure to Reopen

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A small batch of states and individual institutions have released detailed plans as to how institutions of higher education can safely return to in-person instruction for the upcoming fall semester, but with just a few weeks left, some schools are committing to online learning, even as the White House increases pressure to bring students back to campus. 

Many state directives preceded new testing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was touted during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on June 30. The latest CDC guidelines — which will continue to be updated — aim to provide states with supplemental information, rather than issuing mandatory federal compliance for colleges and universities.   

Those federal guidelines urge schools to screen and test individuals for COVID-19 symptoms and to collaborate with state and local health officials in developing their testing strategies. Additionally, CDC suggests schools use contact tracing to identify individuals exposed to the novel coronavirus as a method that can slow and stop its spread.

While on-campus testing is recommended for all close contacts of persons diagnosed with COVID-19, the guidance does not advise colleges and universities to administer entry testing for all returning students, faculty, and staff because it has not been “systematically studied” and it is unknown whether such methods would reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Meanwhile, a push-and-pull between lawmakers and institutions is making it difficult to nail down if colleges will reopen, whether they can do so safely, and what kind of financial support needs to be in place in order to do so.

“The surest step back to normalcy in our country is when 70 to 75 million college and high school and elementary school students go back to school,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), HELP committee chairman, said in a recent interview. “If we need more money for that, I’m for that.”

The extra funding for testing is a provision that could be considered in Congress’ next coronavirus aid package. The higher education community has on many occasions pushed for more funding — as much as $47 billion — to compensate for revenue losses incurred as a result of the pandemic as well as impending state budget cuts, and schools themselves are seeking liability protections from the government should students return to campus.

Yet Congress remains deeply divided on how the government should support institutions of higher education with the fall semester approaching, as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in parts of the country. During a virtual hearing of the House Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, Democrats touted the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act as a way to help higher education institutions navigate the uncharted waters, while a handful of Republicans asked college and university leaders how they could trim expenses at their institutions and highlighted the assistance institutions already received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

On top of financial concerns, states and institutions are also feeling pressure from the Trump administration to reopen for the fall semester.

“It’s clear our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year. Anything short of that robs students, not to mention taxpayers, of their futures — and their futures represent our nation’s future. So it’s not a question of ‘if’; it’s just a question of ‘how,’” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said during a recent White House summit focused on K-12 school and college reopenings. “This is the time to reopen schools; to rethink school; to be more nimble, more agile, more responsive to students’ needs in a 21st century, changing world.”

President Donald Trump has also lambasted CDC guidelines, called online learning “terrible” compared to in-person instruction, and threatened to withhold federal funding from K-12 schools and colleges that do not administer in-person instruction for the fall. While the president is limited in what funds he can “cut off,” the threat could further complicate the already narrowing timeline for negotiations over fiscal year 2021 spending and potentially lead to a government shutdown at the end of September.

Still, as colleges and universities debate whether to resume in-person instruction, go fully online, or conduct a hybrid semester, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a rule saying international students may need to pack up if their school goes fully online. The news, which now faces legal challenges, comes at a time when institutions and students are already scrambling to solidify plans for the fall, and even after some have already been developed. The fact that many institutions depend on international students — who pay full tuition — calls into question whether they’ll make last minute changes to accommodate the ICE rule. 

Several states, including New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Washington State, have already released higher education reopening guidance, each of which require public health conditions being set into place before administering in-person instruction and require institutions to submit plans to respective state officials in order to prove their compliance with reopening standards.

“Each campus is different  —  varying in size, location, mission, and academic programs. But everywhere, students and educators are clearly ready to get back to campus both to learn and to enjoy this unique period in their lives,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, during a press conference June 24. “However, we must acknowledge the need for equitable student outcomes under these circumstances and that student health must be paramount.” 

With the start of the fall semester quickly approaching, final decisions will have to be made soon and some schools are committing to operating with remote instruction.

On July 6, Harvard and Princeton announced that the majority of fall coursework would be administered online. The universities were soon after joined by a similar announcement from Rutgers University. In recent days, other institutions like Georgetown University announced plans to invite freshmen to campus, but those plans remain contingent on guidance from the District of Columbia. 

While more states could continue to issue parameters by which institutions of higher education will need to operate in person for the fall semester, schools may begin to embrace remote semesters, circumventing any unforeseen health risks on-campus instruction could expose.

“Harvard was built for connection, not isolation. Without a vaccine or effective clinical treatments for the virus, we know that no choice that reopens the campus is without risk,” the university’s president and deans wrote. “That said, we have worked closely with leading epidemiologists and medical experts to define an approach that we believe will protect the health and safety of our community, while also protecting our academic enterprise and providing students with the conditions they need to be successful academically.”


Publication Date: 7/13/2020

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