Senators press colleges on coronavirus safety plans to reopen campuses

Washington DC

WASHINGTON, DC (NEXSTAR) — Students, parents, and colleges are using the summer break to debate if, when, and how to return to class this fall while the coronavirus crisis continues.

The Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee held a hearing Thursday with college leaders on how best to reopen their campuses safely.

Chairman Lamar Alexander, a former university president, painted a picture of what going back to school will look like in the time of coronavirus, including masks in classrooms and professors behind plexiglass.

“Concerts and parties are out,” Sen. Alexander, R-TN, said. “Grab-and-go meals, flu shots, and temperature checks will be in.”

Alexander said while states like his plan to return in August with mostly in-person classes, others, like California, are going mostly online.

“All roads back to college lead through testing,” he said. 

Instead of establishing a nationwide policy, Congress and the Trump administration have deferred to schools to develop their own testing strategies with their states. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-LA, was particularly concerned about what that means for colleges with less resources, like historically black colleges and universities.

“Where are you developing your testing strategy from and what could be done to help you or those similarly situated, my HBCUs in Louisiana for example, to implement such a strategy knowing that your student body may have increased incidents of those comorbid conditions, which increase risk?,” Cassidy asked.

“Well, I begin with number one: make the investment in our institutions,” Dr. Logan Hampton, the president of Lane College in Tennessee, responded.

Hampton asked lawmakers for an additional $1 billion for HBCUs to help them shift classes online and provide other coronavirus protections, something Sen. Doug Jones, D-AL, supports.

“I joined with a couple of colleagues in sending a letter asking for the additional $1 billion in funding,” Jones said.

Hampton also said Congress should help students in need financially by doubling the amount of Pell Grants they receive.

“We need your investment,” he reiterated. 

Senators also stressed how critical widespread testing will be for college athletes and their coaches as they return to campus. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University in Indiana, said the athletic department is ready to conduct tests on a regular basis, but he stopped short of asking Congress for help to make up sports-related revenue losses.

“I don’t want to minimize this one, but I, for one, would not urge that you place that nearly as high as, for example, helping HBCUs,” Daniels said.

With preparations underway for the fall, some Republicans and college leaders have proposed liability protection for schools to keep them from being sued if a student tests positive for COVID-19. Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University in Rhode Island, worries the cost of defending schools against lawsuits would take money away from student services, like financial aid, but said she prefers a “very carefully crafted” approach.

“I do not want protection from being careless,” Paxson said. “That is not what we’re about.”

Alexander said life on college campuses will not really go back to normal until the fall of 2021 when a vaccine has already been widely available.

Daniels ultimately stressed he does not want students to feel pressured to return to campus in August.

“If you are uneasy about any of this, please don’t come. We have another option for you,” he said. “On the other hand if you are going to come, please be prepared to pitch in.”

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