A panel of college presidents described to a Senate committee Thursday the challenges of reopening campuses later this year and how they plan to adapt to changes such as social distancing in the COVID-19 era.
Most colleges and universities say they want to reopen their campuses later this year after shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. But the presidents said their classrooms, dormitories and dining halls, among other things, will look different this upcoming semester and that those changes could be costly.
The presidents also warned of the challenges for smaller institutions that might have to lay off more employees or close permanently if they cannot reopen for the fall.
“The question for administrators of 6,000 colleges and universities is not whether to reopen in August, but how to do it safely,” Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in his opening remarks.
College officials say they are making plans to test students on campus for COVID-19, set up Plexiglas between professors and students, transition dining halls to “grab-and-go” setups and restructure residence halls so students who share rooms have more space between them while sleeping.
Among the steps that colleges need to take are physical changes to allow for more space between people. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University in Indiana, said the university purchased more than 1 mile of Plexiglas to use in separating professors and students.
Students and employees will also be required to wear masks and engage in social distancing on campus, Daniels said. The university has spent millions on improving heating and cooling systems and improving its disinfection work, he said. The university plans to screen students as they arrive and do a lot of testing initially on campus, with some randomized testing throughout the semester.
Daniels said the university has identified 500 beds for students who need to quarantine.
Brown University President Christina Paxson said she plans to do extensive testing on campus if the university reopens.
“Talking to my people, members of my medical school, as well as parents and students and faculty, they want testing. They want everybody to be tested. And then we want to do surveillance testing on a regular basis throughout the year,” she said. “It’s both peace of mind but also being able to monitor the spread of infection. I think it’s essential.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not said that colleges need to test their entire campus, although some colleges have plans to do so.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the federal government should provide some basic guidance for colleges and universities and how they should approach testing on campus.
Higher education institutions also say they are concerned about how students’ financial situations have changed because of the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Logan Hampton — the president of Lane College, a historically black college in Jackson, Tennessee — said HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions need Congress to provide $1 billion to help adapt to the new reality. He also said Congress should increase student grant aid by doubling the maximum Pell Grant award.
“I would be remiss if I did not share with you that Lane College is bracing for revenue losses that would impact our ability to operate, and our students are enduring tough economic times that represent unique challenges, especially for students of color,” he said.
“Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and racism that continues to impact our nation,” he added. “If my students are disproportionately impacted, then my institution is disproportionately impacted and needs the investment.”
Many colleges and universities are having to reconsider financial aid for students, the witnesses said.
Paxson said students’ financial needs are changing. The university is not expecting students to be able to save money from summer jobs to go toward their schooling and understands that parents who help finance students’ education may have lost their jobs in recent months. She said the university is revisiting the financial aid it had awarded to some students.
Hampton said the school provided funds to students that were appropriated through a law enacted earlier this year known as the CARES Act to help them with their current financial needs. Among the Lane College student body, 78 percent said in a recent survey they needed help with food costs and 73 percent said they needed assistance with housing, he said.
“They did their FAFSA based on the previous income,” he said. “Those incomes have now dropped. Their families will have less means to help them come August.”