Op-Ed: We Must Get College Students Back on Track, That Means Back on Campus

Carol Cronheim | July 13, 2020 | Opinion, Education
The best thing colleges could do for the economy — and equity — is keep kids in school. To do that, testing and contact tracing will be key
Carol Cronheim

Last week, several of New Jersey’s four-year residential colleges and universities released their plans for the 2020-2021 academic year. Rutgers is going to be mostly virtual, while Princeton will allow first years and juniors to be on campus in the fall, and sophomores and seniors in the spring. Still, their coursework will be more virtual than in person. Rowan recently announced that it will be open with a “hyflex” system of virtual and in-person options for students.

I appreciate the enormity of these schools’ choices. College campuses have many moving parts and multiple constituencies. Whatever they decide will be questioned, second-guessed and criticized by some and praised by others.

That being said, keeping students on track should be our priority. We need a new space race for COVID-19 response and recovery. Universities need to undertake a moon-shot initiative to deal with the multiple impacts to higher education in the state — from lower enrollment, reduced endowment earnings and philanthropic contributions, to state funding cuts. Launching this fall is even more important for our sons and daughters.

This generation of college students does not remember a pre-9/11 world, or a pre-Columbine one either. They’ve drilled for shooters, taken their shoes off at airports, faced an opioid epidemic, and now a pandemic. They will put up with invasions of privacy and outright discomfort if that means they can return to campus.

This virus and the lack of leadership from the federal government have created a public policy crisis on many levels — in health, education and the economy. With great job losses, the best thing colleges could do for their staff is be open. With fierce competition for employment, the best thing colleges could do for the economy — and equity — is keep kids in school.

Recent reports show that FAFSA applications — the federal financial aid form — have dropped precipitously here and around the country, led of course by the most disadvantaged of our high school seniors. Those are students who may never get back on track.

The nation — indeed, the world — cannot afford another “lost generation.” If schools remain virtual in the fall, many kids will take a gap year at best, and drop out at worst. That one year could easily stretch into many years or forever once their academic forward momentum is slowed. As a parent of a student who just completed his first year, I can absolutely say that — despite institutions’ best efforts — college in my dining room is not the same, or worth the extremely high cost of tuition.

If they are forced or pushed to take a year off, what will they do? Jobs are scarce. There is nowhere to travel. By keeping this low-risk group together, you’d be keeping potential asymptomatic carriers away from their grandparents, parents and other vulnerable people. When they return home, they can quarantine while finishing courses for the semester virtually.

Young people have to be somewhere

Young people have to be somewhere. When you keep students off their campuses, you are exporting responsibility for them throughout the country to places that are, frankly, less prepared to take care of them, test them and track them. Instead of carefully monitored interactions with older and more vulnerable people, they’ll be out in public with them, in stores with them, and perhaps even in the same home.

COVID-19 has created a mental health crisis as well, and shuttered or limited schools will only exacerbate it. The image of the sad, depressed student alone in his or her room is real. For this age group, it will be markedly less safe to be home than at school.

So what can campuses in New Jersey do? Last month, the state of New Jersey came out with its general rules for the reopening of higher education. I give the state and university policymakers credit. They are dealing with all the logistical issues — density, testing, tracing, cutting-edge technology to check temperatures and monitor sick buildings, outdoor dining, remote learning, mask usage, mandatory health reporting, shorter semesters, etc.

But one part is unrealistic. You cannot expect college students to socially distance all the time from each other. Anyone who has watched the opening of the beaches can see that even older adults have a hard time staying apart from each other. The goal should be to have students keep as much social distance from each other — and from people off campus — as possible.

Think of the campus like the international space station. Only occasional visits for food and supplies should occur, and the astronauts need to stay on the ship.

How would this be possible? By treating each campus like a separate ecosystem, and treating the students and staff in similar, but not entirely the same, ways. A recent Cornell-led study surprisingly showed that a campus that brings its students back will be safer for its community than a campus that doesn’t open for residential instruction and opts to be all online. It found that two to 10 times more people could be infected with COVID-19 during a semester conducted entirely online, with significantly higher numbers becoming seriously ill. Why? Because students will still cluster, especially those with off-campus housing already leased for this coming year. Even students at schools that are almost entirely residential are making plans to be together somehow, somewhere. In that scenario, though, they won’t be under the university’s protocols for testing and behavior. Whatever community they are in will be more vulnerable.

So close the physical gates to the public — but throw them open for your own students. Open the virtual portals for the community and for those with underlying conditions for whom in-person learning — or teaching — would be risky. For certain staff, working from home has been good. Let them stay there.

Testing, contact tracing are key

The key is testing. To reopen, testing — and indeed, quarantining — will be a priority, especially for schools with students from states that have been less rigorous in their approach to “flattening the curve” than New Jersey. Our schools’ plans all recognize this reality. After the initial testing, continuous testing should occur on a revolving schedule to catch any outbreaks early. The testing should be based on a purposive, not random, sample. It will be important to test students from all of the different clusters on campus — majors, dorms, dining halls, etc. — in each round of testing so that any outbreak can be caught more quickly. The same system should be in place for faculty and staff.

Colleges around the country are looking into working collectively to purchase tests to lower the cost, the concept of pool testing, and relying on university medical schools and other centers of expertise to analyze the tests. Rapid results would go a long way toward limiting outbreaks.

Contact tracing will also be key. Both low and high-tech approaches should be employed. So far, most administration plans have seemed wary of apps that make tracing easier through technology. They shouldn’t be. Students already allow colleges to infringe on their privacy. They can enter students’ rooms, track their dining hall usage, require vaccinations and access sensitive personal information. I have spoken with student leaders at several institutions in our state, and they told me they would do absolutely anything it takes to be allowed to come back to campus. Most would be fine with liability waivers, masks, tests, tracing — any type of electronic monitoring — even with watches and rings that take temperatures and monitor everywhere they’ve been and anyone they’ve been in contact with. Their attitude was “bring it on.”

Many administrators are worried about housing if a cluster breaks out on campus. Single rooms would be nice, but unnecessary if you consider each group its own small domestic unit, much like our own households. Hotels, which are reeling from a lack of visitors, could be rented by the semester to be used in case of emergency for off-site quarantine or even to allow more social distancing in the dorms. Perhaps some colleges and universities could share these expenses.

For traditional college populations, one of the biggest issues will be keeping the students away from much more vulnerable faculty and staff. Whatever the reason, average-aged college students themselves seem much less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19. To protect faculty, remote learning, a combination of online lectures with smaller in-person precepts, and barriers — think of a theater scrim — could become the norm. Use those large lecture halls for much smaller classes to decrease density. The more spaces in use, the more time between classes to disinfect. With tenured faculty, perhaps those who are over a certain age should be allowed to take their sabbatical years, and younger faculty to put theirs off, at least until this pandemic is over.

The few institutions that can afford it should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Don’t worry about spending 1% more than usual of your endowment interest. Not losing a generation of students will require a billion-dollar effort. Realize that this is a once-in-a lifetime — not once-in-a-generation — disaster and act accordingly.

It’s scary to go where no institution has gone for more than 100 years. It’s difficult to deal with the many moving parts and possible impacts. But that is what leadership does. Don’t let this generation of students be lost because ours doesn’t have the right stuff.