Senate health and education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander on Thursday said “the question for administrators of 6,000 colleges and universities is not whether to reopen in August, but how to do it safely.”
Senator Alexander made his remarks today during the Senate health and education committee hearing — “COVID-19: Going Back to College Safely” — which featured college and university presidents discussing their work to help students go back to school in the fall as safely as possible, including: strategies for COVID-19 diagnostic and serology testing, plans to isolate students discovered to have the virus or have been exposed to it, implementation of social distancing guidelines, and coordination and discussions with state and local public health officials.
“President Trump and Congress should not be telling the California State University System that it must open its classes in person, or telling Notre Dame it cannot—or telling UT-Knoxville that it must test everyone on the campus or telling Brown University that it cannot. Colleges themselves, not Washington D.C., should make those decisions.”
Senator Alexander continued, “I recently was on a phone call with about 90 presidents of Tennessee’s 127 institutions of higher education, and almost all of them are planning to resume in-person classes in the fall, but they want governments to create liability protection against being sued if a student becomes sick.
“All roads back to college lead through testing. The availability of widespread testing will allow colleges to track and isolate students who have the virus or have been exposed to it, so the rest of the student body doesn’t have to be quarantined.
“Widespread testing not only helps contain the disease; it builds confidence that the campus is safe. Fortunately, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir says there will be 40-50 million tests available per month by September. That is 4-5 times today’s number—and today’s number is twice as many as any other country.
“Dr. Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, now leads a competitive ‘Shark Tank’ enterprise at the National Institutes of Health to discover new ways to conduct tens of millions of additional accurate tests with quick results.
“Administrators ask: ‘Where will I find tests?’ The answer is, consult your local health department and your governor. Each state submits a monthly plan to the federal government outlining testing supplies and needs. Admiral Giroir’s team then helps fill the gaps.
“My recommendation: you want your school’s testing needs to be in your state plan. A school can also contract directly with laboratories who conduct tests, review the Food and Drug Administration list of authorized tests, or ask for help from a nearby large university or hospital that has created its own test.”
Senator Alexander concluded, “The United States is home to 6,000 colleges and universities — arguably the best system of higher education in the world because institutions have maximum autonomy and minimum direction from Washington on everything from their curriculum, tuition, admission policies, health care plans for students, and compensation for faculty. They determine what their policies will be for student behavior and conduct, housing, safety, and a host of other things.
“We know that a single lost year of college can lead to a student not graduating from college and set back career goals. Already, disruption of university research projects has erased much of the progress that was being made with the record levels of research funding Congress has provided over the past five years. Many American colleges—overall considered the best in the world—will be permanently damaged or even closed if they remain, in witness Christina Paxson’s words, ‘ghost towns.’
“Two thirds of college students want to return to campus, according to an Axios survey. At Purdue, tuition deposits by incoming freshmen broke last year’s record. Colleges and universities are microcities. College presidents and administrators can make them among the safest small communities in which to live and work during this next year. In doing so, they will help our country take its surest step toward normalcy.”
Read Chairman Alexander’s opening statement here.