Colleges Must Set Coronavirus Thresholds for the Fall

“Data determines dates.”—New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, seemingly every day since April.

As a New Jersey resident, I have grown accustomed to the governor making this point during most of his coronavirus press conferences. While I am happy that New Jersey is one of the few states in the country that has the virus under reasonable control at the moment (it was wonderful to get a professional haircut this week!), many state residents are frustrated that the governor has been less than transparent regarding the data points used to support reopening.

This finally changed yesterday when the governors of New York and Connecticut joined New Jersey in putting a 14-day (voluntary) quarantine in place for travelers from states where the coronavirus is deemed to be out of control. This is based on two data points: 10 positive tests per 100,000 residents and a 10% test positivity rate averaged over the last seven days. The governors have promised to update this list as conditions change across the country (assuming that states actually continue testing), and currently eight states are subject to the quarantine. If this continues, this creates more havoc for colleges looking to bring back students from other parts of the country.

Colleges desperately need to adopt this type of data-driven approach when planning for the fall. Most colleges are committed to having at least some classes on campus come August or September, and cases are spiking on some campuses during the summer. Nearly all colleges shut down on-campus operations in the spring before they even had a confirmed case on campus, and it is clear that many colleges at this point are comfortable tolerating at least some cases on campus. (The level of comfort in the fall will likely depend on whether colleges can get liability waivers from the state or federal governments, and colleges are pushing hard for that protection.)

If I was a college president, I would be crafting a plan that tied on-campus operations to data on coronavirus cases among the college community and in the surrounding area. Some of the metrics would include:

  • Number of known cases among students and employees
  • Number of known cases in the county
  • Capacity to quarantine on-campus students
  • Available space in local hospitals (beds, ICU space, and ventilators)
  • Fatalities could be a measure, but it is probably too gruesome to include even though all deaths may be impossible to avoid

This plan needs to be worked out in conjunction with the campus community and local health authorities and the numbers must be made available to the public. For example, a college could create a plan stating that if the surrounding area has 50% of ICU beds available, campus operations will continue as planned with social distancing. If 25% of beds are available, only the most essential courses could be on campus and residence halls would be emptied. And if just 10% of beds are available, the physical campus would be closed like what happened this spring.

By publicly releasing their plans, students can make more informed decisions about their fall plans among colleges that all promising the same experience at the moment. People who are more risk tolerant and want the traditional college experience could choose colleges that are more likely to remain open in spite of a higher number of virus cases. On the other hand, people who are more concerned about their health or their family’s health could choose a college that has pledged to move online more quickly.

Allowing data to determine plans may also provide colleges with some protection against calls to close as soon as the first few cases come to campus in the fall. If the agreed-upon plan focuses on hospital capacity or serious cases, a modest number of less severe cases may not be a reason to shift all operations online.

Author: Robert

I am an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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