With the threat of the coronavirus continuing into the fall and next year,colleges and universities across the country are struggling with whether to reopen their campuses — and if so, how. On one side of the ledger are the health risks of density if students return to the dorms and classrooms and facilities, especially to older faculty and staff members and surrounding communities. On the other side are disruption and derailment, concern about the isolation of online learning and economic loss for institutions, college towns and regions.
In an ongoing survey of more than 800 schools in The Chronicle of Higher Education, two-thirds said at the end of May that they were planning for an in-person semester in the fall. As colleges and universities make decisions now about their operations over the next academic year, what are the conditions for trying to reopen campuses? If students return, what changes to college life will be needed to contain and suppress the virus?
We brought together by video conference six participants in higher education to talk about these questions. One panelist, Richard Levin, a former president of Yale University, helped lead a state committee that early in May presented recommendations for higher education in Connecticut that could be a model for other states as well. First, the report said, governors in consultation with public-health experts should establish “gating conditions” for bringing students back to campus. These include deciding that the prevalence of Covid-19 is low enough to resume operations; ensuring that schools have the capacity to test students upon arrival and at other intervals, as well as faculty and staff members who come to work on campus, and to conduct contact tracing; and providing guidance about masks, physical distancing and density for dorms, dining halls and classrooms. The report also recommends giving schools that comply with the applicable state regulations immunity from lawsuits for infections that occur on campus. (The report suggests treating community colleges, which account for about a third of undergraduates nationwide, like offices or other nonresidential settings, because close to 99 percent of students commute rather than live in dorms.)
If these conditions are met, the hope is that colleges and universities could follow hospitals and essential businesses that have figured out how to continue their work without seeding an outbreak in their communities. How realistic is that?
Carlos Aramayo is president of the Boston chapter (Local 26) of the union UNITE HERE, which represents 14,000 dining-hall staff members at colleges and universities and other workers in industries including hotels, gaming and food service.
Dr. Michael V. Drake is president of Ohio State University and a physician. He previously served as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, and vice president for health affairs for the University of California system and was a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Mary Dana Hinton is the incoming president of Hollins University in Virginia and emerita president of the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota. Both are liberal-arts schools.
Richard Levin, an economist, is a former president of Yale University and co-author of a report on gradually reopening higher-education campuses in Connecticut, written for Gov. Ned Lamont.
David Wall Rice is a psychology professor and associate provost at Morehouse College, where he also directs the school’s Identity, Art and Democracy Lab.
Dr. Pardis Sabeti is a biology professor at Harvard University and a member of the Broad Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her work focuses on comprehensive approaches for detecting, containing and treating deadly infectious diseases. Her team was recently awarded funding from the TED Audacious Project to build Sentinel, a pandemic pre-emption and response system.
If Schools Reopen, What Will Campus Life Look Like?
Emily Bazelon: The Cal State system recently announced that its 23 campuses will do most instruction online in the fall. On the other hand, other universities, like Purdue in Indiana and New York University, have said they are inviting students back to campus. Schools like the University of South Carolina have decided to bring students back from August until Thanksgiving and then end the semester online, to avoid a second trip back to campus before the winter holidays. Pardis, what does the science on infectious disease teach about how to minimize risk if students come back to campus?
Pardis Sabeti: With any virus, a big fear is the spread you get when an interwoven community mixes with a larger population — like a college campus in a city. You can try to prevent spread by creating closed circuits with a certain number of individuals. Say up to 10 students live together in a suite or on a hallway and ideally take classes together. They don’t have to social distance from each other as long as if one of them gets infected, everyone in the group quarantines. And they can see other students outside the group if they are careful to social distance, especially outdoors, which is safer.
Some schools, especially small colleges in rural areas, could try to enlarge the closed circuit, perhaps even encompassing the whole campus. This could really only be done if some staff and faculty are within the closed circuit, while others work at a greater distance. The point is to reduce risk as much as possible. Some of that involves testing and asking people to self-report any symptoms, including minor ones. And also, maybe you have mostly teaching fellows or graduate students, rather than older faculty, closely interacting with students. And younger staff who don’t have pre-existing conditions, and who can travel safely, can come to campus.
I think the students most likely care more about being with each other than being with us, when it comes to our physical presence, so there’s some room for exploration there.
Richard Levin: In our report for Connecticut, we explored some of the ideas that Pardis is suggesting. We’re in a global pandemic, and the idea that college life is going to be normal if we do reopen is just a fantasy.
Our recommendation is to treat groups of students who share rooms or live in suites, in units of four to eight, as a family unit. Single rooms would go to immuno-compromised students if they want to be on campus. It does mean that if one person in the group gets sick, the others get quarantined.
Most students are less likely to get seriously sick from this virus. And fortunately, fatalities are a very small percentage of those infected. But that’s not the case for people over 65 or people with comorbidities, and students are often silent carriers, because many people in their age group who have the disease are completely asymptomatic.
Carlos Aramayo: At the end of the day, among the most likely people to die, frankly, if there is an outbreak on campus, are vulnerable populations like dining-hall workers and the communities that they come from. I think this is an extremely serious question that needs to be looked at with extreme caution.
Mary Dana Hinton: At Hollins, as at a lot of schools, we have a mix of housing — apartments, suites and traditional rooms on hallways. It’s easier to figure out family units for the apartments or suites; we are also thinking about grouping students on hallways so they can share a bathroom that other people don’t use.
We’re also thinking a lot about the importance of shifting the culture. When we reopen, it’s no longer a time of unlimited freedoms. It will be a time of mutual accountability and collective responsibility for the well-being of one another. That’s one place where smaller institutions like Hollins may have some advantage. Healing and the safe re-establishment of community has to be the priority for student life on campus.
David Wall Rice: At Morehouse, as a historically black college for young men, there is a culture of tethering education to responsibility. Now we have to redefine that. From the president to faculty to staff to students, why are we here? What is our purpose?
We have a weekly community meeting called Crown Forum, based on chapel, where the campus comes together, and we bring in activists and academics to talk about pressing current issues. This spring, we took it online and used it to talk about what students were going through at home, what faculty were dealing with, how the original sin of slavery and the history of black people in this country relates to the greater impact Covid is having on our community.
If students come back to campus, we have to keep pursuing this thread of discussion so we can communicate the rules in a way that students say, OK, that makes sense, it’s related to this greater purpose and responsibility. We can say, “You’re going to die if you don’t do this, or other people are going to die,” but young folks often think that’s not going to happen to them, or it’s not going to happen tomorrow. Making the campus safe has to be about people coming together and coming through for each other.
Hinton: We’ll update our codes of conduct, but I can’t imagine this working if it’s top down. The community has to collaborate.
Michael Drake: At Ohio State, we’re a large community of about 100,000 people, with 16,000 students who usually live in the residence halls.
I teach a freshman seminar, and when I looked at my students on camera, in the same arrangement that I’m seeing all of you now, and asked them how they were doing, they were all yearning to come back to campus. Not so much to see me, but they really wanted to see each other; they really love the experience of being together in the collegiate environment. What we’re weighing is whether that’s prudent, appropriate and safe.
One idea is to group students in family units in residence halls. We might also have players on a team live and eat together. Of course, there’s some tension there: We know from studies that students learn more from people who hold different views, so a big value of a residential college is getting to know a wide range of people who come from a variety of backgrounds and have a variety of interests. So I’m speaking of limiting students to smaller groups as an intermediate step.
And we have to think about our athletics program. Our football games draw over 100,000 people. Our hope and intention is to make football reasonably safe, with an audience of 20,000 to 50,000 that’s spaced out in our stadium, but we haven’t made any final decisions.
Bazelon: Part of what many students love about the experience of college are large gatherings, parties, mixing with lots of new people. What you’re all describing is very different. Will students want to be in school in these circumstances, and will they rise to the challenges they present?
Drake: I’m thinking as we’re speaking about my job as a medical-school professor, going back a few decades, at U.C.S.F. I was there at the time when the AIDS epidemic began. We had all sorts of policies and practical approaches to dealing with it. We had great massive socially conscious movements to try to do things to help people behave more safely. But the epidemic kept spreading. What worked was developing a highly effective antiretroviral therapy. Nothing else honestly worked.
We want to do everything we can to have students champion the best behaviors. I would love it if that would possibly be enough. I will say, we’ve done that with sexual violence as much as we possibly could, with the efforts of thousands of people. And we’ve watched only gradual changes.
Hinton: As a first-generation college student, I had one shot to get an education. I do think that some of our students, who understand what is at stake for them, will do anything to be on campus. Compliance may not be 100 percent, but students can behave in ways that point to the fact that college is a big opportunity for them, and they don’t want to risk that opportunity.
Drake: The virus waits for opportunities to exploit human behavior to allow people to infect other people. We expect that there will be those who will not follow the guidelines and that the virus will swoop in. We have to know how we’ll react when things fail and try to limit and curtail the brush fires that will break out.
Today, after speaking with you, I’ll be on a call with our people about which testing algorithms we should use — whom to test when — which cohorts, or how to do sampling so we can monitor the university population. We’ll do surveillance, starting with the normal health screens that people do on themselves, and we’re going to do the best we can to be as close to perfect in contact tracing and isolation as we can be. And we have overflow spaces, separate for isolation and for quarantine. We may use floors of residence halls for this or perhaps small residence halls kept vacant for that possibility, and we’ve also been talking to local hotel operators, who have space because travel is down. The idea is for a person who is infected to have a single room with a private bathroom.
Bazelon: Recently in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon, described how his hospital system in Massachusetts has worked to suppress the virus. He says they’ve been on a learning curve but have had few workplace transmissions. Are there lessons here for other institutions?
Levin: Gawande focuses on four kinds of behavior — sanitary hygiene (washing your hands frequently); reporting your symptoms, including the most minor symptoms; social distancing; and wearing masks.
We did some modeling to estimate how much social distancing is needed to prevent widespread infection in colleges and universities. Suppose we start the school year on Sept. 1 with one student out of 1,000 unknowingly infected with the disease. You can think of this as the fraction of the population that falsely tests negative on arrival to campus. Further suppose that the number of people to whom an infected person will on average transmit the disease (the R0, or “reproductive ratio”) starts at 2.26, which is within the range of numbers calculated in the first month of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. If the population is 100 percent susceptible to the disease — in other words, students arrive with no immunity — and there is no social distancing, 85 percent of the students will have experienced infection by Dec. 18. But if social distancing is practiced 50 percent of the time that individuals have potential for close contact, only 0.9 percent of the population will be infected in the same time period. And if there were 60 percent social distancing, the R0 would be less than 1, and only a very tiny fraction of the population would become infected — 0.2 percent in four months.
The moral of the story is: You don’t have to be perfect with social distancing, but you have to be pretty good. I think, realistically, it’s hard to expect a population of 18-to-22-year-olds to be perfect. One solution is to actually police this social behavior in order to protect others. I think you have to say to people who misbehave chronically, you’re being sent home. And that would take a lot of courage. It’s not what we normally do.
Sabeti: To help detect symptoms early, so we can then isolate people who have them, we can also use technology. In 2016, we had a mumps outbreak on Harvard’s campus. We began developing an app then that we’ve been testing with the students. The idea is that the first time they cough, you want them to tell you. You do that by making the app useful to them, and you don’t want them going to a waiting room for diagnostics and infecting everyone there. We named the app House Call, because if you sign up and report symptoms, we’ll come to you. We can bring you a testing kit along with honey and tea. Then, through the app, we can trace students’ contacts. We may not be able to stop every spark of infection from lighting, but we can catch it before it becomes a fire.
Bazelon: What about making an app like that a condition for coming back to campus?
Hinton: I wouldn’t be comfortable mandating an app like that because of the privacy concerns. Students would have to understand why it would be beneficial to opt in. I think there are other ways we can ensure reporting of symptoms. I think we could look at students screening each other, like a buddy system, or self-screening when they go into a dining hall, for example.
Rice: I think requiring students to disclose their location, or other highly personal information, could backfire. It can certainly be problematic in thinking about the surveillance and policing of black bodies, black men in particular.
Sabeti: How long would forced use sustain itself? The more data people enter voluntarily, the more useful the app is. You want people to see it as a service to themselves and to other people.
What About Working on Campus?
Bazelon: Carlos, the folks in your union are employed in food services and dining halls. Among people who have to work on campus, they may be at particular risk, given the small kitchens they sometimes occupy and the fact that to do their jobs they have to interact with people pretty closely. But major layoffs are obviously not what you’re looking for.
Aramayo: The members in our local are 85 percent black and brown and often live in multigenerational households, and many of them have comorbidities for the virus. They feel two contradictory things. One is: People are very afraid to go to work. They are very afraid of the public-transit system. They’re very afraid that the institutions may not take the level of responsibility that’s necessary to keep them safe. And I think they’re frankly very afraid of the unknown.
On the other hand, people really want to get back to work. Income security is a really important issue for our members. Also, with an overwhelmingly private health care system, if people stop working for enough time, they can fall off their health care plan, and depending on what state you’re in, you may have no access to health care. The last thing we need is for people to lose health care in a health care crisis.
Levin: One of our chief recommendations to schools, in our report, is to engage with unions. Dining-hall workers, and to some degree custodians who have to clean bathrooms, face significant risks. Anyone over 60 to 65 years old, anyone with comorbidities, accommodation needs to be made for people in these categories, for both staff and faculty, and especially for those who interface with students.
The most important thing to protect our staff and our vulnerable populations is testing. We have to have adequate numbers of tests so we can test all our students and all our student-facing staff, including faculty, prior to opening schools for residential purposes. That is absolutely a precondition.
Sabeti: To reduced the number of diagnostic tests they need, schools could use pooled testing. That means combining several samples and then doing one test on them. If the test is positive, then you’d test each individual sample separately. One idea a colleague, Michael Springer, who is a biologist, had recently is to pool testing for a group of students who are living together. This helps address the problem of false negatives — you could miss one positive case and probably still catch the virus in the group because others in the group will most likely be positive.
Bazelon: Is getting tests the area in which the schools are the most dependent on the government?
Levin: We impressed upon the governor that testing at the opening of school would have to be truly prioritized. In Connecticut, that means a bank of what we estimate to be 200,000 to 300,000 tests at the beginning of school. Which is as much as is expected to be available in the whole state in a one-week or two-week period. It’s going to be a big challenge nationally, if you think about the number of students in residential education. There are about 11 million undergraduates enrolled in four-year colleges, and that doesn’t include staff who are essential to campus operations.
Let’s say you want to test everyone twice or perhaps even on a regimen of some sampling through the year, maybe it’s four or five tests a year per capita, that’s a lot of tests compared to where even public-health experts at the national level were forecasting we’re likely to be. Per capita, the number of tests available in the United States, even what’s projected now for September, is vastly behind what China or South Korea or Taiwan has been able to do.
Now, the fortunate few leaders like Ohio State and Harvard that have medical centers will probably be able to produce enough tests for themselves. But that’s just another manifestation of inequity, and it shouldn’t be the way we do this.
Aramayo: Testing is really the entry-level benchmark to reopen any industry. When it comes to screening, you can talk about people being honest about reporting symptoms via their cellphone, for staff as well as students. But I could see situations with certain supervisors putting pressure on workers, even implicitly, who then feel like, Oh, I just have a runny nose, I’m going to say I’m fine. The culture around being sick at work is you go to work anyway, particularly in the food-service industry. Even when you get contract language that is the best, the platinum standard, you still end up in grievance meetings because some supervisor thought they were doing the right thing by forcing somebody to go to work sick.
We have one model for reducing risk, for people who choose to work, from an agreement we reached to provide food for health care workers with the food provider at the Boston convention center, which was converted to a field hospital. To begin with, we set a much higher wage rate for folks to come in on a voluntary basis. Workers received temperature checks and were surveyed about symptoms daily. And they had 14 sick days. We also had people agree to working in teams where they choose their schedule and their team, and then they’re not allowed to move to a different team, which is unusual for us. So imagine, for example, Team A is breakfast, Team B is lunch, Team C is dinner. And if you’re on Team A, you work your Team A shift; you can’t ask to switch and work Team B one day.
The idea is to keep the same team of workers together so that if someone does get sick, and people have to go home and quarantine, you’ll just have to replace that team. It’s less flexibility for the workers, but it’s good for them in terms of reducing infectious spread.
We were also able to redesign the kitchen to maintain social-distancing protocols. Now, that would be impossible in some small kitchens. But so far, with the model for the convention center, we’ve been able to keep the work force healthy.
Bazelon: To add one more level of detail to food, which is important to college students, do you imagine much more grab-and-go, like boxed lunches? I would imagine that if there’s less hot food, then you might be able to space the shifts of the dining-hall workers out more?
Aramayo: All the institutions that I know of are operating on a grab-and-go system. You could also develop a delivery system for your dining hall, where you order on your phone and a runner brings the food to your dorm. That would be good for jobs. I think that’s in development. But there are some real logistical challenges around doing some of this stuff to scale. A lot of the residential dining halls are designed around the kind of service they provide. They weren’t built around, you know, cook-to-order, industrial-scale production.
Bazelon: As you were discussing earlier, some employees will be at higher risk or live with others who are at high risk. Do you imagine that everyone should be able to say, I can’t come to work until there’s a vaccine or the infection level is way, way down?
Aramayo: We strongly feel that work needs to be voluntary in some way, meaning that people do not get fired if they’re saying, “I’m 65 years old and have diabetes, I don’t want to do a job right now that has to be done in person.” We’ve had a couple flare-ups here in the Boston area with hotels trying to reopen, where people literally are being told, “You’re going to be reported and taken off unemployment if you don’t report to your station.”
Right now, we have some schools continuing to pay people who are not working, and we have an unemployment bonus of $600 a week from the government for people who don’t stay on the payroll. It’s been relatively easy so far. I think it will get more difficult as we head toward the opening of the economy. We’re not advocating for a university paying over the government paying. Our guiding principle has been, if we’re going to remove people from the work force, we have to find a way that they don’t have extreme income insecurity.
Bazelon: Some schools, including Morehouse, have cut pay or laid off or furloughed employees because of the losses from the spring, when they gave students partial refunds for room and board, or because they’re anticipating fewer students in the fall.
Rice: Nobody is happy about a pay cut, and I know that faculty members want to be in front of students in the classroom. I know I do. But I also see senior colleagues who are real gems for the institution committed to figuring out Zoom. I have faith that we can figure out a hybrid of some in-person and some video classes. Whatever needs to work, we’ll make work, because the stakes are so high.
Levin: Talking to faculty in Connecticut, we heard from some who are truly worried about coming in and others who are raring to go. I suspect that many institutions will let faculty decide. The issues could be trickier for courses that would seem to require an instructor to be present, like a lab, or a dance class, or drama or art.
Bazelon: What about child care for staff and faculty with young or school-age kids?
Rice: My younger kid is going to be in kindergarten next year. This spring has taken a ton of coordinating with my wife. My default is that if my son has to learn online, and I have to be in my office, then he’ll be with me if necessary. And there will be some things I just won’t be able to do.
Aramayo: If child care or school doesn’t open, it’s going to be very difficult for staff to work on the schedules they’re going to be expected to work on.
Sabeti: We have all these child care folks who are out of work right now, and then we have all these people who need child care. Ever since Ebola, I’ve thought there should be a system where you can see on a map who you can work and partner with easily. On city blocks or in workplaces, there are groups of people who need child care. So why not match one group with one child care provider, and then they’re a unit? If that sounds too complicated or expensive, think about all the economic loss when parents can’t work.
What Will Learning Be Like?
Bazelon: The safest way for colleges to operate is online, the way they did this spring. Why not simply continue that approach until we have a vaccine?
Hinton: You know, the transactional part of education can be online. We can conduct a class technically and cover content. But especially for students whom we want to have social and economic mobility, it’s not just the transactional parts of education that matters. It’s the transformational component. And we hear from our students that the development of critical thinking, problem solving and leadership skills — skills that are so important in this search for equity and mobility — happen within and outside the classroom. Being together, being seen and heard, really matters. Also, for some of our students, they need the housing, they need food, they need safety, they need to be in community.
We are economic engines in our communities as well. Think about the numbers of people we employ — for example, Virginia’s private colleges have over 23,000 employees in the sector, and nationally many higher-ed institutions are among the largest employers in our regions. It’s important for us to reopen, to keep people employed, to keep the economic engine running. And I would also say, for some institutions, there is an existential threat that’s out there if they’re not allowed to reopen.
Levin: There’s a very good piece by Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, that basically said if you’re thinking about reopening because you are worried about the college going out of business, think again, because it’s human lives we’re dealing with.
We learned this spring that online education is not a perfect alternative to the residential experience. But people can grow intellectually and work toward credentials that are going to be valuable to them in terms of upward social mobility.
Bazelon: In the town-gown relationship, there is a risk to the town from reopening and another kind of risk from shutting down. The tension is real. Can one of you explain the existential threat?
Levin: I’ll take a crack at that. I think the colleges most threatened economically by this downturn are the smaller or midsize private institutions. State governments have the responsibility to keep their state institutions alive. There may be severe budget cuts following from the downturn that we’ve experienced, but I don’t think we’ll see very many permanent closures of state institutions. But for many small liberal-arts colleges, and even midsize schools that are private that have some graduate programs, I think they’re definitely in much bigger trouble because they rely primarily on tuition for revenue. Unlike the elite private schools, they don’t have large endowments; they’re basically tuition dependent. And without doing massive layoffs, they can’t adjust their costs fast enough to offset what would be a precipitous decline in revenue, if they go online, because my assumption is that they couldn’t charge the regular level of tuition for a long time. Many schools charged full tuition for the spring semester. But some are facing lawsuits demanding partial tuition refunds, and I think it would be a harder proposition for a whole year or longer. I think these schools would have to lower tuition or face a steep decline in enrollment. From talking to small liberal-arts colleges in Connecticut, I know many of them feel that they are existentially threatened by a possibility of having to be online for an entire year.
Bazelon: Pardis, you teach a big lecture class. How do you want to do that in the fall?
Sabeti: Even if we reopen, it will be some time until we come back to a lecture hall. I teach intro to genetics to 500 students at Harvard, mainly freshmen. We’ve always put all our lectures online as a resource for people who miss class. So this spring, we used that same framework. And I’ve been doing a number of regular meetings with smaller groups of students online.
For lecture classes, this could even be an improvement. You could have a recorded lecture that you develop and really make tight, and then you spend your classroom time with blocks of say 10 to 30 students, and it’s more interactive. You work through the material and do the thinking together. That’s what section is for now, with teaching fellows, but we could put much more faculty attention into it.
Hinton: I’m grateful that the Hollins faculty recently voted to limit class sizes to a maximum of 25, which I know many larger schools can’t do.
We’ve done an assessment of all of the classroom spaces to see what it would take to observe a six-foot radius around all students. We found we may have to use the rooms that allow for social distancing for more hours of the day, eliminate classrooms that are too small and also use spaces that have traditionally not been classroom spaces, like a conference room in an administrative office suite or a performance space.
Levin: Some West Coast schools are thinking about holding a lot of classes outdoors in the fall. Put up temporary partitions outside, without roofs, for the natural ventilation, and install some sound barriers.
Drake: Yes, we’re looking at how classes can meet outside in the early fall and also at considering more evening classes so we can maximize the use of classrooms that allow for social distancing. I think you will see a lot of schools end the on-campus portion of the semester at Thanksgiving.
Levin: If universities offer in-person instruction, they will also have to have enough classes available online that any student can choose to continue their educational program online and not come back. And that would have a decrowding advantage on campus.
Sabeti: Another way to have less crowding is a staggered schedule, where some people spend the first half of the semester on campus and then another shift comes for the second half. Or we could extend the school year and make the summer a full session.
Hinton: I know there is a lot of talk of students taking gap years if school is all online. I have a child who might do that. But what about that youngster who comes from a family with very little money and who can’t find a job? What’s that young woman going to do? A gap year is not a thing for her. What happens to her?
Rice: On the other hand, why am I going to be convinced, as somebody who is in a vulnerable population, to trust that going back is the best thing for me to do? I’m not going back during this uncertain time just to get credentialed to go to graduate school or to get a job. Going back right now has to mean something.
Drake: We have finished receiving our statements of intent to register and nonrefundable deposits for next fall for freshman. We’d increased our admissions offers a bit to prepare for the negative impacts the pandemic could have on enrollment.
Instead, we are up 20 percent for Ohio students, 25 percent up for students who live out of state. We had a 21 percent drop in international students, but we had anticipated that it would be much greater. We were very pleased and actually a bit surprised at how eager students are to come.
Planning for an Outbreak
Bazelon: What do you do if infections spike on campus? Do you keep the students or send them home, as everyone did in March?
Sabeti: One of my lab members, Molly Kemball, went to Middlebury College in rural Vermont as an undergraduate, and this spring she wondered whether Middlebury should have closed when it did. There weren’t known infections on site. The college is 34 miles away from the nearest major city. It became a thought exercise we have kept coming back to in considering college re-entry.
Bazelon: Mary, imagine an outbreak at or near Hollins. Would there be a situation where you would want or allow the students to stay? Are we going to repeat this spring, or are there different options?
Hinton: If there were a manageable number of cases, I don’t think we would see the same wholesale movement nationally to send students home and move all classes online again. In the spring, no one wanted to be the first campus to get a case and to have an outbreak, so there was an element of reputational risk that drove some institutions to say, Oh, no, we’ve got to move them off campus immediately.
Now we know that one of the keys to successfully weathering and containing an outbreak is to be able to test, trace and isolate immediately. Planning for that must be a condition of reopening, so we should be prepared accordingly.
Levin: Talking to public-health officials in Connecticut, we concluded that in a full-blown outbreak, you don’t send home students who are sick or in quarantine because they were in contact with sick people. That would be a public-health risk, so you wait until they’re not infectious. But you might test the rest of the students and send home the people who were negative.
Aramayo: If any institution is seen to be trying to open for financial purposes and it ends with an outbreak, and that outbreak spreads to a community, I think that’s going to be a pretty serious stain on that institution. I’ve seen this in the hotel industry. We had the Biogen conference at the Marriott Long Wharf, which turned out to be a superspreader event. The entire hotel industry in the city of Boston has been painted with that stain.
Levin: Everyone — students, faculty, staff — all are going to have to make compromises with the ideal world we wish we were all in, and the world we will be in again someday when we have a vaccine or a therapy. In the meantime, if you’re going to make that choice to come to college, I think you need to be prepared to accept that the terms are going to be different. It isn’t going to be the same kind of fun, and you aren’t going to have the same kind of parties. But you are going to have great educational opportunities, and there will still be a lot of benefits to take away from it. I think we’re in a world of imperfect choices. And I think everyone has to be a grown-up and recognize that’s where we are.
Pennant: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the magazine and the Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law at Yale Law School. Her book “Charged” won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for 2020 in the current-interest category.