Expert warns reopened colleges could trigger fall COVID spike

“It’s going to be a different campus life.” Senior Taffy Lashley expects big changes back at Rutgers Newark. Universities across New Jersey can reopen this fall, only months after college students hurriedly packed up and went home to finish the Spring semester online under COVID lockdown. “As long as they’re following the social distancing guidelines as much as possible, putting limits on my classroom sizes, then I think that we can be back in the fall.”

Kevin Crawford’s headed to Rowan for his freshman year. “The experience of being on a college campus, for me personally outweighs the risk. If cases do begin to spike, I’d be all for going back to remote learning. But I think we deserve at least a chance.”

Well, here it is, Governor Murphy today signed an Executive Order allowing colleges and universities to reopen with state-approved plans to keep students and staff safe on campus. The Department of Higher Education is issuing detailed standards for ten different categories from housing and transportation, to testing, dining and classroom instruction.

New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education, Zakiya Smith Ellis said, “Institutions must observe standards of social distancing of six feet, sanitizing equipment and materials, hand washing, cleaning and disinfection, and accommodating individuals with symptoms or a positive diagnosis.”

In-person classes are limited to labs and other subjects that need hands-on guidance unless colleges obtain special waivers. Some classes could be hybrid, partly online. NJIT, an engineering school, is making special preparations. NJIT President Joel Bloom explained, “our students predominantly learn to work in teams from their freshman year on. You can do it. But it’s a massive challenge. So we think it’s a good thing to reopen in the fall.”

NJIT has increased enrollment but schools aren’t permitted to fill dorms to capacity. At New Jersey City University more than 100 students have already been living at a social distance on-campus. NJCU President Sue Henderson remarked, “we’ve been very lucky, very fortunate we haven’t had any cases. Although if we have a case, we know what we need to do, we have quarantine space. And I think what we’ll have to do is take that practice and extend it out to the larger campus.”

“I think that people are going to get sick.” Behavioral science expert Laurence Steinberg warns opening prematurely will cause a COVID spike at colleges across the nation because most students are at an impulsive age. “Although these plans are well-intentioned, it’s very very difficult to see them working. That knowledge is not going to be enough to overcome the inclinations of young people to do risky things even when they know better.” Steinberg says many universities feel compelled to reopen to keep revenues flowing. But he warns, the ultimate cost could be very high.