US health experts offer only limited hope for autumn teaching

Anticipating a renewed coronavirus outbreak, California State University plans for semester online

May 13, 2020

Top US health officials gave universities a mixed message about the prospects of resuming on-campus instruction in the fall, telling lawmakers only that it is possible that the country will have sufficient testing capacity to safely allow classes in some regions.

“Technically, we will have the ability” for some colleges to hold autumn semester classes, Brett Giroir, the lead federal official overseeing coronavirus testing efforts, told a US Senate hearing.

Dr Giroir, the US assistant secretary for health, said he based that promise on his expectation that the nation, now conducting about 10 million tests a month, could raise that level several times higher by September.

Other federal experts, however, reiterated their warnings of unrealistic expectations about reopening US society quickly – including those raised by Donald Trump, who declared a day earlier at the White House that the US had “prevailed” over the virus.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, did not dispute Dr Giroir on his hopes for expanded testing capacity. But Dr Fauci listed other factors – including sagging public commitment to restrictions – that now threaten to make conditions far worse.

“If that occurs,” Dr Fauci told senators, noting cases of Americans rejecting advice on maintaining physical distancing, “there is a real risk that you would trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control.”

While US universities struggle with such questions, the nation’s largest four-year system, California State University, made a firm decision, saying its classes would remain largely online in the fall.

The CSU chancellor, Timothy White, cited the same concern expressed by Dr Fauci, saying he did not want to begin classes in person and then face the need to suddenly switch back to online learning “if a serious second wave of the pandemic occurs, as forecast”.

The leaders of the 23-campus CSU system, with one of the nation’s most diverse student bodies, also recognise the challenges that students, faculty and staff would face in trying to travel safely to campuses while holding down jobs and raising families, Dr White said.

The system cannot yet project how its online status – the product of “a great deal of discussion” among the campus presidents in recent weeks – might affect autumn enrolment across the 480,000-student system, said a CSU spokesman, Michael Uhlenkamp.

One campus of the 285,000-student University of California system, UC San Diego, has begun offering free coronavirus tests to some of its on-campus undergraduate and graduate students, hoping to make them feel safe enough to return in September. But leaders of the overall UC system have suggested that the idea is premature for wider use.

Such indecision and concern is rampant nationwide, with universities and their states talking hopefully about reopening campuses in the fall, many students and parents talking cautiously, and the institutions staring down warnings of dire finances if they cannot restart.

One of the latest came from Edmit, a college advising company, which issued a report estimating that 345 US colleges and universities are now in financial peril because of the pandemic.

Federal health experts at the Senate hearing were greeted with a plea from the panel’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee, for some advice for universities in his home state.

Dr Fauci bluntly told him that a vaccine or therapy for Covid-19 would not arrive in time for the autumn. Dr Giroir offered estimates of nationwide testing capacity in the fall ranging from 25 million to 50 million per month.

While that is not enough to regularly test a nation of 330 million, or a US college student population of 20 million, Dr Giroir suggested trying early-warning strategies that could include using a single test on a collection of student samples, or testing the sewage from a dormitory or from a section of campus for telltale signs of coronavirus.

But Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added the caution that even the best scientific and medical scenarios would require steadfast commitment to extensive behavioural changes on campuses, and substantial increases in systems for tracing contacts of those found to be infected.

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