As someone who has worked in a major university, I know how hard it is to make educational decisions, let alone decisions around health and safety for thousands of people. COVID-19 has presented unique challenges for American colleges, where the impact is felt not only by students, faculty and college workers but also by the surrounding communities in which educational institutions are located.
But what has made this nightmare worse is the absence of leadership and federal support in an unprecedented time. Everyone seems to be making it up as they go along.
A recent New York Times survey of more than 1,500 American colleges and universities – including every four-year public institution and every private college that competes in N.C.A.A. sports – has revealed at least 51,000 coronavirus cases and at least 60 deaths since the pandemic began.
From the beginning of the pandemic a serious problem has been clear: the absence of any singular voice in the Trump administration to help college administrators confront health outbreaks. What we have seen instead is a patchwork of differing answers, leaving people reeling in every state.
Back in June, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension looked into the question of how to safely reopen campuses this fall. Those who testified included Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and Logan Hampton of Lane College in Tennessee. Only one health expert, George Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, was on the panel.
Mitch Daniels, a former Republican governor of Indiana, was the most aggressive in arguing to open colleges, making a strong case for getting college kids back to classes. And indeed, Purdue started classes in the Protect Purdue era with mandatory masks in most places on campus, retooled classrooms, refigured class schedules and dozens of other precautions intended to reopen the university as safely as possible. Since then, Purdue has issued multiple citations, suspensions and quarantines, many to students who don’t live in university housing but on off campus residences that are hard to patrol.
Last week Purdue University reported over 40 new cases of coronavirus, and the university’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that 204 students have tested positive since August 1.
The situation is much worse in colleges in Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi and all over the country where campuses have shuttered, abruptly moved to online learning, reopened, reclosed and a host of other non-linear actions. In Texas, a Christian school experienced a surge in cases, leading to a letter from the chancellor of the school, saying, “we literally cannot keep up with the pace of the spread we are experiencing this week.”
Other schools have had campus protests, “sick outs” and fights over isolation spaces and hotel lodging. Athletic programs are in disarray as disputes rage over the right precautions for locker rooms. Some students are sent home; others told not to leave.
Much of this mess could have been avoided with federal leadership. During that Senate hearing in June, ranking member Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBuilding strong public health capacity across the US Texas abortion law creates 2022 headache for GOP Top Democrat says he'll push to address fossil fuel tax breaks in spending bill MORE (D-Wash.) called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosDeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP GOP lawmakers urge Cardona against executive student loan wipeout More insidious power grab than one attempted Jan. 6? MORE and other agency heads to address these issues directly with institutions. Since then we have heard very little from DeVos or others in the administration in terms of concrete guidance for colleges and a roadmap for the fall and winter. It appears as if federal education experts are missing in action when it comes to a vision for universities during the pandemic.
We all agree that we need colleges in America to succeed for America to succeed. And none of us wants sick students and communities. But without unity of purpose and clear guidelines from the top, there will be mass experimentation at the bottom. Before we know it, Thanksgiving will be upon us, an election for president might be decided and the flu season will be underway. Now is the time for answers about how colleges should proceed — before we lose our most precious resource: an educated citizenry.
Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, and currently a fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.