The University of Notre Dame announced yesterday that it plans to reopen its campus on August 10, two weeks earlier than normal, and to forego fall break so that students finish the term before Thanksgiving. The California State University system has said that it will keep most classes, outside of courses like nursing clinicals which require in-person learning, online this fall. But for most universities, such as JMU, a contingency plan is the most they can offer right now. “We all recognize that this is a disease that none of us control and nobody even completely understands, and so we’re planning for all contingencies,” Alger told me.
College leaders are considering a few key questions: How do you regularly test a 20,000-student campus? How do you police student movement on campus to help with contact-tracing efforts? And will students and their families even want to pay thousands of dollars to risk their lives?
Read: What if colleges don’t reopen until 2021?
The most important factor in the reopening decision is the safety of students and faculty members. As Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Rushing to reopen our society and our schools is a mistake that will ultimately result in hundreds of thousands of citizens falling sick and worse. We should not let our own financial and reputational worries cloud our judgment about matters of life and death.”
At JMU, Alger’s contingency-planning task force is thinking about a nation with a vaccine and one without, a nation with robust testing and one with the lackluster capacity the United States has now. But university officials will also be relying on data and health experts to decide how to reopen, Alger said. College presidents across the country have offered a version of this same statement. Unfortunately, the data sets are unreliable. The official numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and individual states often don’t match up. The CDC counts every individual test—whether or not a person has been tested multiple times—whereas many states count only the raw number of people tested, but that alone does not explain the difference. The discrepancies in testing data make it difficult to truly know the scale of the crisis.
If there is an outbreak on campus, many large research universities have their own hospitals to lean on. But some colleges—public regional colleges, small liberal-arts colleges, and community colleges in far-flung areas—will have a more difficult time handling even a small surge of cases. These same colleges are also the least likely to have the financial stability to weather the crisis, and no amount of pandemic planning can fix that.
Some data can reassure leaders, though. For example, Alger and others at JMU have been in constant contact with their local hospital, Sentara RMH Medical Center, to check on bed capacity and ventilator numbers. “Part of the [reopening] conversation is about making sure that the local public-health system can handle whatever we’re dealing with,” Alger said. So far, the facility has been able to handle hospitalizations related to the coronavirus. As of this writing, Virginia has had 30,388 positive cases and more than 1,000 deaths; Harrisonburg, where JMU is located, has had 583 cases.