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Massachusetts College Presidents Present Plan For Reopening Campuses In Fall

Students and faculty walk out of the Campus Center at UMass Boston, in this 2018 file photo. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students and faculty walk out of the Campus Center at UMass Boston, in this 2018 file photo. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A group of Massachusetts college presidents Wednesday recommended a four-phase plan for reopening campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I've spoken to a lot of [college] presidents in the last couple of weeks, and most of them tell me that this is the most important work and the most important decision they feel like they'll be making in their professional lives," said Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin, who leads the Higher Education Working Group, which includes 14 college presidents.

Testing appears to be the biggest hurdle to reopening campuses. Only 59% of college presidents reported to the group that they are very or somewhat confident that their college can implement testing of all students, faculty and staff who return to campus. Wellesley President Paula Johnson is heading a testing working group that will recommend testing protocols to colleges.

The four-phase plan is in line with the Baker administration's overarching reopening plan, but with industry specific details. Colleges would first reopen laboratories and medical, dental, veterinary and other health clinics and schools.

In a second phase, colleges would reopen campuses to students on a limited basis with testing, personal protection equipment and social distancing. Small summer programs could open and students in career technical education who could not complete their degree requirements in the spring could return to labs, studios and shops on campus.

A third phase would see a larger-scale return of students to campus, perhaps at the start of the academic year this fall. This phase would be contingent on continued improvement of health metrics in Massachusetts, and would only happen if there are sufficient supplies of PPE and tests.

For phase three, campuses also would have to establish protocols for monitoring symptoms, social distancing, use of masks, tracing contacts of students or employees who test positive for COVID-19, and spacing exposed students for isolation and quarantine.

The group recommended that Gov. Charlie Baker call on each Massachusetts college to come up with a plan to reopen its campus, monitor health conditions, contain the spread of COVID-19 if it is detected and scale back operations if necessary.

Eighty-nine percent of college presidents reported to the group that they can have all students live in single or double bedrooms.

"We're thinking about some creative ideas around grouping students into almost family-like units where that becomes their main social group," Leshin said. "Like all of us are spending lots of time with their families, they would do that as well."

Other recommendations being considered include clustering students with shared courses to minimize risk, moving even small classes to larger spaces with better air flow, offering a mix of online and in-person classes, spreading out of tables at dining halls, having students dine in shifts and offering meals to go.

Only once a vaccine or treatment is available or herd immunity is achieved would normal operations resume as phase four. Herd immunity is achieved when a significant percentage of the population is immune to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The group said the state should assist colleges in the procurement of tests, PPE and cleaning supplies, as well as help colleges with contact tracing. It recommended that Baker continue to require health insurers to cover testing.

The college presidents are also recommending that Baker protect colleges from liability if they implement comprehensive plans to reopen under state guidance.

The recommendations were made to the governor's Reopening Advisory Board.

This article was originally published on May 27, 2020.

This segment aired on May 27, 2020. The audio for this segment is not available.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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