Over a dozen college and university presidents from across Massachusetts have outlined how school campuses could potentially reopen to students and classes — a framework that relies heavily on coronavirus testing availability.
The 14 leaders from public and private universities and colleges say the four-phase plan aligns with Baker’s plan to reopen the state, and draws from a survey they conducted with 86 campus leaders about the coronavirus-related challenges their institutions are facing.
“While each campus will need to make its own decisions concerning operations in the coming academic year based on their own planning and needs, we hope this framework provides guidance in their work to repopulate their campuses at the appropriate time,” Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, wrote to the advisory board.
As the commonwealth works its way through Phase 1 of Baker’s plan, higher education intuitions have been allowed to repopulate their research laboratories and clinics.
But the governor’s plan leaves decision-making for reopening beyond that up to each institution. Each school is required to come up with their own plans after public health guidance from the state is issued.
Officials say four principles will guide any return to campus this fall: protecting the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and nearby communities; the ability for students to make “meaningful progress” toward their goals; the ability to contribute research programs; and the ability to minimize economic hardship on school employees and the state economy.
Here’s what to know about the recommendations:
Phase 1 is already underway for institutions that have brought back staff to their research laboratories and medical, dental, veterinary, and allied health clinics.
“Many higher education leaders have high confidence that these activities can resume safely because the people working in these environments have expertise using personal protective equipment (PPE) in controlled environments,” Leshin wrote. “Small numbers of staff would also return to on-site work, as needed, to support ramp-up of operations activities that cannot be supported remotely.”
Schools could also conduct a phased move out of any student belongings left on campus from the spring semester and bring back staff needed to support the ramp-up to a reopening in small numbers.
On-campus student programming would be able to begin again in Phase 2 on a “small scale,” the framework says.
This endeavor would require sufficient coronavirus tests and PPE, as well as plans that lay out how the school could manage physical-distancing and mask-wearing requirements in each program.
The working group believes these kinds of programs could include small initiatives typically held on campus during the summer; the reopening of dining halls, classrooms, and dormitories to accommodate small numbers of students; and career technical education programs that can operate in low-density labs, shops, and studios for students who were unable to finish credential requirements in the spring.
During Phase 3, “larger-scale population” of campuses would begin, possibly when the academic year begins in September, according to Leshin.
“However, given that students will be gathering in classrooms, residence halls, dining halls, and other campus locations, this phase moving forward is dependent upon continued progress on health metrics in Massachusetts, and would only happen if tests and PPE are available in sufficient supplies to meet safety protocols,” she wrote. “Planning must include campus-specific protocols for critical actions such as symptom monitoring, social distancing, use of masks, testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine spacing.”
Specifically, the working group recommends schools monitor students when it comes to mask wearing and social distancing outside of bedrooms and consider a “wide range of flexible strategies,” such as clustering students with shared courses to minimize contact.
Institutions would also need to determine criteria for students with co-morbidities and for out-of-state and international students.
In classrooms, colleges would likely rely on a mix of in-person and remote learning for courses, and would have to reorganize spaces to allow for physical distancing.
And in dining areas, schools should follow guidance to reduce seating density similar to protocols expected for restaurants. Boxed or carry-out meals may be viable options.
Testing access and capacity is critical to getting campuses reopened — and for reaching Phase 3, officials said.
Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College, is currently helming a working group to develop recommended testing protocols for higher education institutions.
“Contact tracing and quarantine and isolation protocols must be developed in conjunction with testing protocols,” the framework says.
Phase 4 will cover “new normal operations” for schools.
This primarily means that a vaccine or other medical treatment is widely available for COVID-19; there is public confidence that the health crisis has ended; and herd immunity has been achieved, the framework indicates.
“The Higher Education Working Group recognizes that best practice protocols concerning testing, contact tracing, and symptom monitoring in our campus communities are under development,” Leshin wrote. “Because the science and technology are evolving rapidly, our plans must be flexible to accommodate new knowledge and capabilities as they become available. To consider these issues, we have formed a special sub-group to provide advice to institutions across the commonwealth, work which will continue into the coming academic year.”
Beyond the proposed framework, the working group also put forth several considerations for state officials such as having the state partner with colleges and universities to help procure testing, PPE, and cleaning supplies as well as the rollout of contact tracing programs.
“The diversity of colleges and universities in Massachusetts means that there is no ‘One Size Fits All’ approach,” Leshin wrote. “However, as evidenced by responses to the Readiness to Reopen Survey of Presidents, there are also many commonalities.”
Leshin cites that the majority of schools are confident they will share their plans for the fall semester by July 1 and can prepare for reopening in six weeks or less.