To Reopen Campus, Colleges Prepare To Take On Contagious Students

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Dorms at Northeastern University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dorms at Northeastern University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts colleges are planning to set aside dorm rooms to isolate and quarantine students with COVID-19 if campuses reopen this fall.

To make rooms available for students who have to be isolated or quarantined, some universities will be moving other students into hotels.

Boston University President Bob Brown told the Massachusetts High Technology Council on a Zoom call Thursday that the BU is setting aside 5% of its 10,000 beds for isolation and quarantine.

"Those rooms can't just be any rooms," Brown said. "They have to be rooms for a single person with a private bath, right? And so one of the things that all our campuses are struggling with is: that's not your usual room. A lot of those rooms that we have are occupied in a normal year by medically at-risk students."

Other colleges are planning to reserve 2% to 7% of rooms.

Some large universities like BU have ambitious plans to administer thousands of tests a day to identify students and faculty with the coronavirus as well as staff who come into contact with students. Northeastern and MIT are planning their own testing as well.

Some smaller colleges are considering using outside labs, including the lab at the Broad Institute, which is run by Harvard and MIT. Many colleges are still trying to figure out how often they want to test.

The test colleges are planning to administer is considered the gold standard test. It's called RT-PCR, and it detects whether you have the virus.

"I think there can be expectations that we'll see a lot of testing for the virus, in this case in universities. It's going to require changes to how we perform the swabs," said Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard University's T. H. Chan School of Public Health who is advising several colleges on preparing to test.

Right now, these swabs are performed by health care professionals, but Mina said by fall, students should be able to test themselves and drop the tubes off. He said it is not necessary to test every day, but it should be possible to increase the frequency of testing if a university has an outbreak.

Mina said testing for antibodies and wearing masks need to be part of the solution. But he predicted it will he hard to force students to wear masks consistently.

MIT officials said in a forum in May that it had purchased 250,000 masks and would buy more if it repopulates its campus.

Many colleges are also developing codes of conduct under which students will hold one another accountable for not getting themselves into situations in which they might contract COVID-19.

Brown said BU is moving towards putting students in households where they will enforce the rules of behavior. Each household would use shared facilities.

Sports are likely to be a much-curtailed activity this fall.

Brown said he cannot see fans in the university's stands. He also said he does not see BU moving teams around the Northeast in buses across state lines to compete against traditional athletic rivals, especially with states still recommending 14 day quarantines.

"So you may see a very different set of athletic affiliations in the fall running through this pandemic than you've seen before," Brown said. "Now, as I say that, I was on a call this last weekend with a number of [Southeastern Conference] presidents where there are people talking about putting 100,000 people in a football stadium, but I guarantee they are not from Massachusetts."

In some of the smaller colleges and universities, a high percentage of students take part in intercollegiate sports. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, it's one in five students. Those schools are still trying to figure how to manage competition and travel.

Some universities are already reopening  in part. They are in Phase 1 of their four-phase reopening plan, as is the state, and in this phase, labs are reopening. BU, for example, has approved the reopening of 250 labs.

Phase 2 would involve the reopening of medical and dental schools. Universities are planning to follow different courses. Harvard Medical School has said first-year students would begin on line. BU is planning to welcome medical and dental students to campus next month. That said, BU has also said it will offer all programs on line and in person, letting students choose what's best for them.

College financial fates hinge on how many first-year students enroll this fall.

June 1st marked the deadline for most graduating high-school seniors to make their deposits for the fall. Several colleges say they are on track to meeting enrollment goals, though not all are being specific.

MIT which has yet to decide if it's opening its campus in the fall. Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill said the school had a strong yield — the percentage of accepted students who indicate they will attend in the fall.

Harvard has said six of its graduate schools will be on line in the fall. It has yet to announce whether undergraduates will return to campus. The university said it will announce its yield on Monday.

UMass Amherst, which also has yet to decide whether it will reopen its campus, was the only university to offer specific numbers. Spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said earlier this year, pre-pandemic, UMass Amherst was expecting a little more than 5,700 students to make their deposits. As of yesterday, Blaguszewski said the university had met that goal.

Boston College is planning to open its campus in the fall. Vice provost for enrollment management, John Mahoney, said BC is in a good position for deposits for fall.

A June 3 report from Moody's predicted that elite colleges will be fine, as will public universities because they are a relative bargain, along with community colleges.

Moody's predicted that the colleges which can expect problems are private colleges that are not the most selective. The agency report predicted those colleges will to have to offer deep discounts to students in the form of so-called merit scholarships in order to entice them to enroll.

This segment aired on June 5, 2020.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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