After shutting down campus in March, a university reopens its doors this fall, and welcomes students from across the globe back to class. However, due to the dense nature of a college campus, a coronavirus outbreak occurs, resulting in a number of students and faculty members contracting COVID-19. Tragically, some die of the disease.
That worst-case scenario is looming over the current debate among university administrators about whether to conduct face-to-face classes this fall. With the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci describing a second coronavirus wave as “inevitable,” they may face the logistical nightmare and dire financial consequences of shutting again if they resume physical classes, health professionals say.
“What exactly would trigger a re-closing?” asked Dr. Ron Waldman, a professor of global health at George Washington University, with a specialty in pandemic preparedness. “How much infection on campus will they tolerate? Will it take one death? Or more?”
Harvard University has announced the Fall semester will not be postponed, but has not said yet … [+]
The stakes are high. Higher education was already in crisis before the coronavirus pandemic, with rising cost, budget deficits and falling enrollments plaguing institutions. In 2017, the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicted that, in 10 to 15 years, half of America’s 4,000 colleges and universities were bound for bankruptcy.
That timeline has most certainly accelerated. The University of Michigan forecasts a loss of up to $1 billion due to the coronavirus, and one survey estimates a twenty percent drop in fall enrollments. International students – the one-million-student cohort that contributes $41 billion annually to the U.S. economy – are constrained by travel bans and visa processing difficulties, as well as personal concerns about being far from their families amid a global health crisis. Some students are already filing lawsuits for partial tuition reimbursement after their on-campus studies were interrupted this spring.
But how does a university weigh a community’s health against the economic stress of remaining closed?
Should virtual classes continue in the fall, both incoming and existing student enrollments will steeply decline. “It will be an unmitigated disaster,” said Dr. Roger Lewis Geiger, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of higher education at Penn State University. “Twenty percent of smaller private colleges – already precarious to begin with — would be in danger of going out of business.”
So, while reopening campuses has become an absolute priority for university leaders, the very nature and appeal of the university experience has, in some ways, become its own Achilles’ heel. “Students live very close together in dorms, students travel in packs. That’s part of the collegiality of collegiate life,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University who is also a member of the university’s advisory board currently deciding how the fall semester will look. “It’s part of going up and introducing yourself to a wide range of people, versus working at your bedroom desk all the time.”
Indeed, a newly-published working paper examining course enrollment patterns at Cornell University found that nearly all students were connected via a shared classmate. “Over a typical week, the average student will share classes with more than 500 students,” Dr. Kim Weeden, a sociology professor at Cornell and one of the paper’s authors, said in a summary of findings she shared on Twitter. “The average student can ‘reach’ only about 4% of other students by virtue of sharing a course together, but 87% of students can reach each other in two steps, via a shared classmate. By three steps, it’s 98%.”
Professor Weeden and her co-author Benjamin Cornwell, also a Cornell sociology professor, found that a hybrid model in which large classes were taught online and smaller ones conducted in-person “would not appreciably reduce the interconnectedness of students in the full course enrollment network.”
That kind of interconnectedness means that significant testing would have to be conducted on campus to ensure any kind of student safety. Subsequent quarantining, based on contact tracing, would expand exponentially.
“Universities will have to be prepared to conduct isolation of positive cases and voluntary quarantine of all contacts,” said George Washington University’s Waldman. “That could knock out a disproportionate portion of faculty and staff.”
On a brighter note, when it comes to the potential for opening campuses safely, one size may not fit all. Universities in less-populated areas of the country may have an easier time with social distancing measures.
Community colleges – with many older students who commute from home – face their own challenges. They do not have the same extensive medical facilities that a residential university has, so may be more limited in their ability to contend with a virus outbreak.
Urban universities like NYU, located in downtown Manhattan, must contend with social distancing … [+]
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“Geography, location of place and size and nature of institution will need to be considered,” said Vanderbilt’s Schaffner. George Washington University’s Waldman agreed. “Not everything should be painted with the same brush stroke,” he said. “The situation with NYU and Columbia, compared with institutions in the Rocky Mountain area, is different. There will always be a risk, but there is an individual risk based on institutions and place.”
Contending with the concerns of faculty, who tend to be older, as well as with students with pre-existing health conditions will be a difficult proposition. Purdue University President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. wrote a message to the school community stating his intention to open the campus this fall, and estimated that the 20 percent of the university community over 35 includes a significant number of people with conditions that could make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
Over the next weeks and months, universities will begin announcing their plans for the fall. The mounting pressure to open up the US economy could also play a role in influencing the decision-making, as well as the realization that the coronavirus has shifted the education landscape and the baseline in terms of what we can realistically expect.
“There’s no such thing as absolute safety,” said Vanderbilt’s Schaffner. “There are a million and one questions and we have to co-exist with this virus. The one thing we know is the old way of doing things doesn’t work.”