May 26, 2020 - Economy

A closer look at how colleges can reopen

The campus of Brown University. Photo: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Masks in class, sports on hold, dorm life without roommates and summer 2021 classes for some: Brown University President Christina Paxson tells "Axios on HBO" it's all in play as colleges consider whether and how to safely reopen campuses in the fall.

Why it matters: An extended shutdown of U.S. colleges and universities would leave nearly 20 million students and 3 million employees with an uncertain future, but premature reopenings without proper coronavirus safeguards could jeopardize lives and force more closings.

  • Paxson, an economist, is uniquely positioned to think about these issues because of her work studying the connections between people's economic status and their health and well-being.
  • "I stand by my goal of bringing students back to campus if I can do so safely," Paxson said.

How it works: In a hypothetical reopening, "We would test students when they come in, then test students as well as faculty and staff if they become symptomatic. And anyone who tests positive, we would have space set aside for quarantine and isolation."

  • "One of the scenarios is one where we run a fall semester, a spring semester and a summer semester, and students do two out of the three. So we have about three-quarters of our students taking classes at any one time."
  • Large lectures would likely move online, while students in those courses might still meet in person for smaller group discussion sections.
  • Smaller classes likely would move into those larger lecture halls, where students could be seated under social distancing guidelines.
  • If dorm rooms that have been used as doubles become singles, universities could rent or purchase additional, off-campus properties to spread out housing.
  • Dining halls could become takeout operations or they could incorporate shifts or other methods to allow for social distancing and other health concerns.

One big question: Can sports really resume by fall? As of our taping, a decision had not been made.

  • "It's hard to imagine putting 60 students on a bus or a plane, sending them to another campus where they interact very closely with 50 or 60 students on the other school's team, and then put them back in the bus or the plane and bring them back to campus," Paxson said.
  • "If there are fall varsity athletes whose sports do end up being canceled, I can imagine a number of them wanting to take the fall off so that they maintain that eligibility, and they can come back and do it at a later point. So some students are going to do that for sure."

Be smart: One of the big challenges remains convincing students (and their parents) that it makes sense to pay full tuition before the full experience can return.

  • Usually when students take a gap year, Paxson said, "They're doing it because they have some amazing opportunity. The typical gap year is, you travel around the world or you get a great internship. And I don't know that those opportunities are going to be so available this year."
  • "The primary purpose of coming to a university is to get education," Paxson said. Even with the limitations the pandemic may require, she said, "The value of your degree, what that positions you for in life, will not be greatly altered, if at all."

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