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Guiding Universities on the Path to Reopening


A Q&A with the authors of the COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education

The COVID-19 pandemic is fundamentally altering how we work, socialize, and learn. This means that institutions of higher education around the world are facing unprecedented challenges.

The resulting academic, financial, ethical, and operational questions are complex and high-stakes.

To help address these, the Center for Health Security, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and Tuscany Strategy Consulting (TSC) has released a toolkit, COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education. This toolkit should be used to help guide universities and colleges in their planning to safely reopen by outlining the areas of vulnerabilities and other factors that should be taken into consideration.

Lucia Mullen, MPH and Crystal Watson, DrPH, MPH break down some of the key points of the toolkit in this Q&A.


Who should use this toolkit?

Mullen: Institutions of higher education such as colleges and universities that are considering reopening or expanding their current, limited operations.

While this guide was developed for such institutions based in the United States, it may also be relevant for universities and colleges based around the world as the risks and potential mitigation steps will remain the same.

How far in advance of resuming on-campus instruction should this toolkit be used?

Mullen: One of the first things a university or college should do when beginning to plan their resumption of on-campus activities is conduct a self-assessment such as the one provided in this toolkit.

The goal is to identify their areas of risk and determine the extent to which their proposed mitigation measures would reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Any plan for resuming in-campus activities will be multifaceted and numerous scenarios will need to be considered.

Therefore, universities and colleges should begin their planning months in advance to ensure all options are weighed carefully and ample thought is given to all aspects of university life.

What is the guide NOT intended to do?

Watson: This guide is not prescriptive. It doesn’t give just one answer to how a college or university should reopen. It is a fairly comprehensive approach to identifying potential risks and to addressing them.

However, even if a college or university does everything recommended in this toolkit, risk cannot be reduced to zero. So, institutions need to be very thoughtful about the balance between risks and benefits of reopening.

The guide poses four elements to consider for reopening: health safety materials, protocols, quality of academic programs, financial resources, and management and oversight. Which of these do you think might pose the greatest challenge for institutions that are considering resuming on-campus instruction?

Watson: These are all very difficult issues and COVID-19 is a very complicated and difficult problem for colleges and universities looking to resume on-campus activities.

But, the health and safety concerns surrounding COVID-19 are probably the ones that will garner the most focus. Bringing people together in congregate settings is risky for viral transmission. So, in order to reduce the risk of transmission, some very new and unprecedented steps will be needed. There is significant uncertainty around both the virus itself and the measures used to reduce its transmission. It will be a challenging and iterative process to put adequate protections in place, while bringing students, staff, and faculty back together.

What are the key recommendations in the report? What actions should be taken and by whom?

Watson: The report is really a toolkit for leadership at colleges and universities to use in assessing the risk posed by COVID-19 and determining mitigation measures that will reduce risk of viral transmission while still allowing essential components of campus life to continue.

In general, we recommend that users of this guide dedicate time, resources, and person hours to exploring the contents of these materials. More specifically, there are some risks that we think rise to the top and must be addressed by any institution looking to return students, staff, and faculty to campus—namely the risk of viral transmission in congregate settings, including dorms, classrooms, lecture halls, dining areas, and campus gatherings (eg, sports or concerts).

Institutions will need to be very thoughtful about how to make these high risk settings and activities safe enough to warrant returning to campus. Institutions will need to be very thoughtful about how to make these high risk settings and activities safe enough to warrant returning to campus.

Are there resources available for higher ed institutions to help them meet the guidance proposed in this toolkit?

Watson: Yes, there is a Resources section on the website that houses these planning tools. The Resources section provides information about what other colleges and universities are doing to respond to COVID-19 as well as a database of other reports and guidelines provided by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Council on Education (ACE).

What are some of the unknowns as we look ahead to the Fall?

Mullen: The largest unknown when looking ahead to the fall would be knowing the state of the pandemic at that point in time—at the local, national, and international levels. If the virus is circulating at high levels in the community, then it may not be safe to open the college or university, or very stringent mitigation measures would be needed in order to reopen safely.

This planning guide and self-assessment provides recommendations on how the university or college should operate under various alert levels, ranging from ‘Stay At Home orders’ to ‘New Normal’. Institutions must make their plans on how to reopen safely without knowing for certain which alert level they may be under come the fall.

Another unknown would be understanding the extent to which reopening states and reopening universities will cause a spike in cases. Universities must be prepared to move to a more restricted operating stance with more rigorous mitigation measures in place if a continued increase in cases is seen in the community.

If universities reopen, what should students and parents look for to ensure safety measures are in place?

Watson: Schools will need to clearly communicate their plans for reopening to students (parents), faculty, and staff. These communications should be very transparent about the measures being taken to safeguard health, including measures to reduce density in classes, dormitories, and dining areas; plans for responding if cases of COVID-19 do occur on campus; expectations for personal health and safety compliance (eg, mask wearing and physical distancing); and plans for how decisions will be made to shut campus down if outbreaks of COVID-19 do occur.

This communication should happen before campus reopens and should be updated frequently throughout the academic year while COVID-19 is still circulating in our communities.

What actions will students need to take if they return to campus to keep themselves, their peers, the faculty, and their community safer? What will it be like?

Mullen: Students will need to understand that it will be a very different experience when they return to campus. Many classes, activities, extra curriculars, and other student life hallmarks will be drastically changed or prohibited. Students can do their part by making sure they are informed of all the changes that have been implemented.

If the community experiences a spike in cases of COVID-19, additional policy changes and more stringent mitigation measures may be applied—students need to be aware of this possibility and know which platforms are available to receive these messages. By ensuring they are informed of all the measures put into place—and making sure they comply with these measures—students can help themselves, their peers, faculty members and their community stay safe.