US universities accused of ‘magical thinking’ on reopening plans

As cases hit new highs, institutions confront costly implications

July 7, 2020
Source: Getty

US university leaders have been accused of “suffering from magical thinking” about their hopes of reopening campuses this autumn, as coronavirus cases surge across the country.

Institutions have been forced to dial back plans to resume in-person teaching and to cut tuition fees as the US hits new records of more than 50,000 infections per day, despite more than three months of lockdowns.

The nation’s academic leaders, like much of the US public, had long been “suffering from magical thinking about the pandemic”, said Roopika Risam, an associate professor of secondary and higher education at Salem State University.

Some level of denial may be normal, given this “extraordinarily challenging and unprecedented time”, Dr Risam said. “Universities are no different.”

The financial stakes loomed as a major factor behind any undue wishfulness. US universities are already counting billions of dollars in losses and tens of thousands of lost jobs due to the pandemic, and they widely expect the problem to get far worse if they can only offer their students online options.

But if they do open their campuses – as most are still promising – they face the prospect of people getting sick and dying, and of being held legally liable. “Colleges are in a pickle,” acknowledged Nick Ducoff, co-founder of the student financial advising company Edmit.

There’s plenty of blame for the mess. Many US states, bending to public pressure, began lifting limits on business operations and large gatherings without first making durable progress in limiting infections. Donald Trump encouraged those actions and portrayed basic precautions, such as wearing face masks in public, as acts of political rather than medical importance.

Many students, either through intent or inattention, have managed to contribute even while still on summer break. The University of Washington has counted more than 100 cases among its students, many tracked to its fraternity houses.

The area of Alabama around Tuscaloosa has several hundred infections among people younger than 25, attributed in part to parties with college students reportedly trying to share the virus.

While the pandemic’s pain is universal across academia, there are some significant variations. Lesser-acclaimed public institutions in states that traditionally export their brightest school leavers – such as New Jersey, Kansas and West Virginia – are reporting a spurt of interest from students now looking to stay closer to their families.

And the nation’s better-known and better-resourced universities certainly have competitive advantages. Williams College has cut its 2020-21 fees by 15 per cent, the College of William & Mary is backing off a planned tuition hike, and Purdue University is spending some $50 million (£40.2 million) on campus protections such as Plexiglas barriers and redesigned classrooms.

Cornell University is still planning in-person instruction, citing a study by one of its own researchers that concludes that closing classrooms would be medically riskier.

The study, by Peter Frazier, associate professor of operations research and information engineering, relies on the expectation that Cornell can test each of its students for coronavirus weekly. Students, in that scenario, would be better protected than if they were left to work online with no dedicated testing options, Dr Frazier concluded.

In a note to the campus community, Cornell’s president, Martha Pollack, attributes Dr Frazier’s “counterintuitive result” to survey data showing that many students would return to the Ithaca area and socialise even if their courses were held online.

But professors at Cornell and beyond have been heaping scorn upon the study, noting among other things its failure to consider an option in which students are allowed to receive weekly Covid tests and still retain the choice of working from home if they feel safer.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: US colleges ‘in a pickle’ over reopening plans

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Reader's comments (1)

Not much different to the UK then...

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