Resist pressure, spend money to do right by college students amid COVID

Hannah Todd, Dr. Laura Sigman and Dr. Howard P. Forman, Opinion contributors
Published 5:01 a.m. ET Oct. 8, 2020

Colleges face varying types of pressure from students, politicians, finances and local COVID rates. They need resources and resolve to operate safely.

Colleges and universities are struggling with multiple challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic — from upholding the caliber of student education to supporting the health of students, faculty and staff, all within financial constraints and a complicated political environment. Schools guided by public health and operating with adequate resources have most successfully prevented, mitigated and managed outbreaks. By contrast, those making decisions guided by external factors such as institutional leadership’s view of student wishes or political influences have faced widespread and poorly managed outbreaks.  

To guarantee our nation’s future, Americans deserve the chance to learn safely. To do so, schools need adequate resources to safely teach students in person and to successfully maintain high-quality virtual options when outbreaks necessitate school closures. Some institutions can turn to endowments and donors, but many rely on taxpayer support and all have received only modest support from COVID relief bills.  Their choices are influenced not only by institutional and student financial health but also by variables such as local transmission rates and political forces. Despite these differences, how we can provide all students with the same opportunity to succeed?  

Colby College success is expensive 

Ideally, schools base their decision-making on public health and have sufficient resources to carry out their choices. At Colby College, masks must be worn at nearly all times, all community members are tested twice a week for COVID-19, and students must follow stringent social guidelines including no off-campus visitors and scaled back parties. These efforts are expensive. The twice-weekly tests alone may cost Colby as much as $2.5 million this semester.  

The small liberal arts college’s approach, stricter than federal and even state guidance, is working. Since beginning testing last month, just seven students and four faculty or staff have tested positive. Colby’s success is tenuous, subject to factors ranging from community transmission rates to individuals’ polarized understanding of COVID-19, but its strategies set an example for other schools and underscore the critical need for a public health-driven and resource-enabled response.   

Meanwhile, Gettysburg College sent more than half of its students home for online learning after confirming 64 positive cases over eight days. This “de-densification” effort stemmed from the college’s acknowledgment that they lacked the capacity — such as adequate contact tracers and space for quarantine — to effectively manage disease spread.  

Gettysburg’s endowment is less than half the size of Colby’s, and it spends less per student on instruction than its peer institutions. Although the college made similar disease mitigation efforts as Colby, they were not enough to curb the spread of the virus. It is also unclear if Gettysburg is willing and able to invest in a successful shift to online learning, a vast undertaking. Like Colby, Gettysburg made decisions driven by public health. However, its choices also reflect limits on its resources and therefore its capacity to take on this challenge.  

College student: I was in quarantine on campus. They gave me a bag lunch and little help.

At the start of the school year, University of Wisconsin-Madison saw a significant surge in COVID-19 positive test results. In response, the university paused in-person instruction for two weeks, restricted students to their residences, and banned all large gatherings. University Chancellor Rebecca Blank explained this drastic measure as critical to not just flattening the curve of infection, but to maintaining the “opportunity to have campus open to students this semester, which we know many students truly want.” 

Heavy focus on what students want

Her comment exemplifies the subjective nature of decisions around opening and staying open. Universities rely on students to stay relevant and to keep their doors open. Yet what if keeping those doors open is endangering those very students? Just days after classes resumed, Wisconsin recorded its highest number of coronavirus hospitalizations yet. This left many puzzled by the return to in-person instruction when the situation in the area was only worsening. Moreover, the continued decision to stay open conflicts with county leadership’s requests for the university to move online. This university’s choice demonstrates behavior that contradicts both public health and politics, with a heavy focus on its consumers, the students.  

The University of Texas is one of the largest, wealthiest schools in the nation. Modeling by UT itself revealed how its own students could amplify existing coronavirus spread, but the university still reopened to hybrid instruction. Like Colby and Gettysburg, UT implemented significant safety measures. However, UT testing is voluntary. This raises questions about its merit and illuminates the absence of true information on disease prevalence.  

Football season also began this fall. At games, UT is testing all students in attendance but no other visitors. Texas football brought in $144.5 million in 2018 alone. How did this influence the calculus of deciding to reopen? UT’s approach aligns with state and national politics and is possibly both enabled and driven by financial factors. The school’s choice to provide in-person instruction comports with pressure by the White House for in-person education and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to further open up the state. However, it contradicts local health department guidance, particularly in the wake of the school’s first football game and the multiple clusters and lines of transmission of COVID-19 that followed. UT’s choices around instruction this semester appear based in state and federal politics and bolstered by resources. 

College and COVID-19: Blaming college students for Covid outbreaks is unfair

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, some embrace an element of inevitability. If the virus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, why not search for normalcy, including in our education? Others worry about themselves, immunocompromised loved ones, and strangers. Despite the facts underlying the pandemic, our understanding of and approach to the virus are personal. Higher education’s choices are similarly influenced by factors that include available and potential resources, political opinion, and even academic leadership’s view of their role to educate.  

Students deserve decision-making that prioritizes their well-being and academic progress. Are they getting it? This requires clearer, fact-based expectations about school health and safety during the pandemic and additional government funding to promote an equitable, accessible education for all students.

Hannah Todd (@toddhf96) is a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Laura Sigman (@LJSigman) is a pediatrician and attorney in Washington, D.C. Dr. Howard P. Forman (@thehowie) is a Professor of Public Health, Management, Economics, and Radiology at Yale University. 


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