Brown president: Make students partners in getting our colleges reopened

Christina Paxson is the president of Brown University. In today’s New York Times, she offers a sober, serious but cautiously optimistic evaluation of how U.S. colleges and universities can reopen in the fall.

Her argument recognizes that college students can’t fully thrive in an online-only learning environment.

As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for lower-income students who may not have reliable internet access or private spaces in which to study.

She contends getting students — and by extension faculty and staff — back on campus focuses on “rapid testing for the coronavirus for all students,” “rolling out tracing technology” and all parties agreeing that social distancing is essential. If everyone can accept that “campus life will be different,” President Paxson argues, then there’s opportunity for students to again embrace “the fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom, the research opportunities in university laboratories and libraries and the personal interactions among students with different perspectives and life experiences.”

Paxson’s plan lives and dies with testing for coronavirus. If students can’t be tested on campus, then fears that the campus isn’t a safe place won’t be calmed. In fact, it’s unlikely the campus can reopen without immediate (and repeated) testing of students. (Unstated is the public health necessity; if that’s not confirmed by a state governor, then no doors are opening.)

How much would it cost if a university president or chancellor ordered every student on his or her campus to be tested for coronavirus?

Let’s presume a recent Bloomberg report suggesting a coronavirus test costs between $50 and $100 is accurate. If we split the difference on the numbers, then each test would cost $75. Now let’s presume a campus of 2,500 students.  If every student had to be tested just once, the cost might be $187,500. Double that campus to 5,000, and $375,000 might have to be earmarked for just one set of tests for the entire student body. If the campus is 50,000 students, then it could cost $3,750,000, if every student had to be tested only one time.

Now, remember, that Paxson’s (correct) argument is that one round of testing isn’t going to be enough over a 10-week quarter or 15-week semester.

The highest priority for any university leader is a safe campus; if mandatory testing for conronavirus is deemed essential to that safety plan, then significant dollars will have to be set aside for testing.

The most powerful element of President Paxson’s editorial is her recognition that civil liberties might have to be tempered if colleges are to reopen. Privacy fears are legitimate: a combination of mandated testing and the use of technology that can identify if people on campus have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus screams Big Brother. Faculty and staff who need to be assured that the campus is safe from coronavirus ought not be mocked. Neither should those people on campus who passionately believe in civil rights.

In response to those concerns, President Paxson states:

Administrators, faculty and students will have to grapple with whether the benefits of a heavy-handed approach to public health are worth it. In my view, if this is what it takes to safely reopen our campuses, and provided that students’ privacy is scrupulously protected, it is worthwhile.

Let’s understand that colleges already are stewards of students’ educational, legal and health records. I have no doubt that privacy protocols can be established so that coronavirus test results and tracing data aren’t used for nefarious purposes.

That brings us to the need for social distancing. Creative ways of structuring classes so that classrooms aren’t full can be found. So, too, can the requirement that athletics events be played behind closed doors and that any extracurricular events are deemed essential in order to be held with social distancing plans followed.

All of us in higher education want a return to normal as soon as possible. But normal is many months off; we were reminded of that again today when a leading U.S. health official stated that social distancing must continue at least through the summer.

Opening the college campus again later this year requires creative solutions. Collaboration between administrators and faculty is a must. So, too, is the acceptance of seemingly radical ideas for a temporary period.

Take away creativity, collaboration and compromise, and we might as well keep the doors closed.

And that would benefit no one.

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