‘Getting to the Bottom of It:’ Discussing possibilities for fall 2020

On this week’s episode of “Getting to the Bottom of It,” podcast host Alec Rich speaks with experts in public health and higher education to examine where the University might land in its decision to hold on-campus classes this fall. Rich spoke with the American Public Health Association’s Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin, the Association of American Colleges and Universities President Lynn Pasquerella and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lindsay Ellis.

“Getting to the Bottom of It” is hosted by Alec Rich. This podcast is produced by Gwyn Wheeler. Music is produced by Aulx Studio. Special thanks to Dr. Georges Benjamin, Lynn Pasquerella and Lindsay Ellis.

Read the transcription below:

Rich: Welcome to The Hatchet’s weekly podcast, Getting to the bottom of It. I’m Alec Rich. As the GW community awaits the administration’s decision regarding whether to hold on campus classes this fall, today, I’ll be speaking with three experts who might be able to provide some insight as to what GW will decide to do. These experts have expertise ranging from public health, to university administration, to covering higher education. So we’ll be addressing what the next few months could look like for GW students from a variety of angles. First, we’ll specifically be discussing the health side behind a potential return to campus. 

Rich: My first guest is Dr. Georges Benjamin, who’s been the executive director of the American Public Health Association since 2002, and was previously the secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr. Benjamin, thank you for joining me.

Rich: I want to start off with the fact that the number of known cases in the DMV as of this week was around 28,000, according to The Washington Post, and around 3,000 in the District. What should students who are still living in D.C. know about the state of the virus at this time. 

Benjamin: I think we know that we’re still having a fair amount, of course of community transformation of the virus, and that the likelihood of us returning to what we consider the normal environment is just not going to happen anytime soon. And so we’re going to have to continue how we figure out how to readjust for certainly the next several months, kind of in this remote environment and things will be a lot different than they were this time a year ago. 

Alec Rich: And for students in the coming months especially, do you think the situation will remain mostly the same in D.C.?

Benjamin: I think they will. I think students that are learning to do their studies remotely are going to get very good at it because I think we’re going to see remote classes far into the near future. So that means getting better at using whatever technology you’re using, whether you’re using Blackboard or whether or not you’re using Zoom like technologies for class, other social media tools. We’re just gonna have to get very much used to that. And that includes doing data searches for research journal articles to help us with our studies. 

Rich: How do you think that’s going to affect the rest of college life overall? It’s obviously a more communal setting. And, do you think students would be allowed to return to their dorms or would they have to stay in their current home locations? 

Benjamin: Yeah, I think the dorm question is, it’s too early to know about the dorms for sure. But one of the interesting things I know about college life is that we adapt. And I think the social media environment still allows us to engage one another actively, again, FaceTime and other face to face, video opportunities are there to still engage your friends and still talk to folks. I do think we’ll be able to engage in small numbers of people. But I think the big barbecues and the large gatherings are, I think those are gonna get put off for a while. 

Rich: In a similar way that a lot of universities decided to call off all their spring semesters, essentially in unison. Do you think that the response to the fall semester would be similar as well?

Benjamin: I do. I do. I know several. I’ve heard of several universities that are saying, ‘Look, we don’t know what it’s going to be like, but let’s just plan for for a remote semester, at least the fall semester and then of course, if the disease doesn’t necessarily go away or rebounds in the fall, we’re already prepared for it.’ So I think I think people are trying to fix their plans based on what they know and take the most conservative approach, recognizing that you can still deliver a highly qualified education remotely. I mean, there are just many, many schools that have demonstrated that the brick and mortar environment was becoming a little bit unnecessary for all studies. I mean, clearly, there are some studies that you can only do together but they’ll have to figure out how they adapt those as well. 

Rich: So when do you think for college campuses then a return would be allowed? Do you think the vaccine would be necessary or would increase testing, allow for a faster return, 

Benjamin: Clearly testing is the key. And right now, there are some studies that have been done that show, it’s early studies that about 4 percent of the population has been exposed to the virus. It doesn’t really say yet that four percent or immune, but let’s just say 4 percent of the population at least has been exposed to the virus and probably is immune. Well, we need to get to 70 percent. So we got a lot more people that either have to get a vaccine once we get it, or have to be exposed to the virus so we get what’s called herd immunity. Which is basically a phenomena where, if I’m infected, I can’t affect you because you’ve already been exposed to the virus, and you can break up that pattern when you have herd immunity. So we need 70 percent of the population, either be immunized or have had exposure to the virus, whether you got really sick or not, before just being stopped. So we’ve got a ways ago, 

Rich: And I know other schools like GW peer school, Boston University, have weighed a preliminary plan of pushing classes on campus back to January of 2021. Is that more realistic in your view, than the fall? 

Benjamin: I think so. I think that’s much more realistic than the fall. 

Rich: Dr. Benjamin, thanks so much for your time.

Benjamin: Thank you and you have a good day.

Rich: Next, I’ll be discussing the more administrative side behind the pandemic fallout, and some of the alternatives to a full on campus return in the fall accordingly. My next guest is Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, who has served as the president of the Association of American colleges and universities, such as in 16 has held numerous roles and university administrations, including as president of Mount Holyoke College from 2010 to 2016. Dr. Pasquarella thanks so much for joining me. 

Pasquerella: It’s my pleasure. 

Rich: So as the virus continues to spread, there seems to be increasing uncertainty as to whether in person classes can resume by the fall, do you think universities need to start thinking about their own contingency plans moving forward? 

Pasquerella: Absolutely. All of the college and university presidents that I’ve been talking to are doing a wide range of planning around contingencies looking at the possibility of having students return to campus, having a hybrid model where some return and others don’t, or having all remote learning for the rest of the calendar year. 

Rich: So I mean, among those different options in terms of whether it’s a hybrid learning environment, with socially distanced classes, either maybe a delayed arrival to campus or continued online learning as it is do you think that something that’s going to be addressed by a University basis depending on  their geographical locations or do you think it’s something that can apply across the board where universities kind of fall in line with how everyone else is reacting? 

Pasquerella: Great question. geographical location, certainly matters. The hotspots for the Coronavirus will need to have different guidelines and sets of plans in place, but we’re hearing that there may be a resurgence that’s even more serious in the fall and November and December. And so we need to take that into account as well as we engage in scenario planning. 

Rich: So I mean, a lot of public health officials we spoke to Dr. George Benjamin of the American Public Health Association also for this show, some of the key indicators for allowing at least even a partial return would likely be aggressive testing and contract tracing. Do you think universities should in good faith allow students back to campus if those measures aren’t in place yet, especially in hotspots like GW is in Washington, D.C. 

Pasquerella: This is an issue that individual college and university leaders need to assess. It’s a critical matter of risk assessment, knowing that in order to serve their mission, they need to safeguard the well being of the students, faculty and staff. So it’s not just a matter of testing students, and we look at some institutions like Purdue where their president has said, there’s a zero percent incidence of people dying from the virus with traditional age college students. Well, that’s not the case. But even if it were the case, that doesn’t mean that the faculty and staff are protected from getting the virus. And so we have to consider the entire community and the extent to which college campuses serving as anchor institutions are engaged with the public on a daily basis. 

Rich: And I also want to expand more on the point you’ve raised about international students, GW has brought that up as a potential problem that the virus has created in terms of, especially future enrollment as well for international students. Can you expand a little bit more on that point? 

Pasquerella: We’ve already seen a dramatic decline in the number of international students over the past few years, it’s dropped as much as 14 percent and at many institutions, the mission is grounded in the richness and diversity of the student body. And so this will be a significant disadvantage for colleges and universities as we look at travel bans, right now the president has bans against certain people coming into the country. So how will we achieve our equity goals and promote student success under the circumstances? This is what professors, college presidents and boards are considering at this moment in time. 

Rich: I mean, how do you think as well administration’s can work to especially ensure diversity and inclusion moving forward as well, not only in enrollment but also in terms of retaining faculty because GW has not done this yet, but other universities have started furloughing employees and GW has instituted a hiring freeze different things like that. 

Pasquerella: That’s so important. I’m worried that there will be an over reliance on contingent faculty, not because of the quality of contingent faculty, but because of the failure to protect their long term interests. And so the equity issues and the disproportionate burden it places on women on faculty of color is a real concern. In looking at access to excellence in higher education and ways to ensure that students can continue their education or begin their education, we have to look at government regulations that create barriers to success. And so with the latest stimulus package, colleges and universities have been given a significant amount of money $14 million, 50 percent of that, which is mandated to go to student financial aid. And yet, undocumented students and students who are not going full time are not eligible for that money. And so just look at the community college system. An institution like Miami Dade that has 140,000 students, many of whom cannot afford to go full time because they are working full time. They’re not eligible. And so what are those barriers that are in place that need to be addressed is the responsibility that all colleges and universities have in working with the government to change regulations. 

Rich: And lastly, I want to touch on a point about students, many students depend on essential campus resources, whether it be mental health services, campus jobs for money, physical resources, even like library and lab materials, a lot of those materials have been made accessible online, access to professors, different things like that, how can universities continue to tackle those concerns for the time being, and even into the fall.

Pasquerella: All of the universities and colleges that I’ve been talking to are paying close attention to the ways in which they can deliver these services online. But when I mentioned the showcasing of economic segregation in higher education, as a result of this crisis, we know that the expensive digital divide is such that even if the resources are made available, many students don’t have access to them, especially international students. But even in the United States in rural areas that are most under resourced and underserved students will not be able to take advantage of those resources. So what are the ways in which we can work together to promote access? Again, this gets back to working with business and industry and providing resources necessary to ensure that all students can thrive in this moment. 

Rich: Dr. Pascquerella, thanks so much for joining. 

Pasquerella: It’s my pleasure. Thank you. 

Rich: Our final guest today is someone who’s had her eye on university responses to the pandemic around the country and can add some insight into what different schools might be expecting moving forward. That’s why I’m now joined by Lindsay Ellis, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who covers research universities. Lindsay, thanks so much for joining

Ellis: Thank you so much for having me. 

Rich: So universities are already beginning to put contingency plans in place for the fall, what are some of the proposals that you’ve seen universities make so far. 

Ellis: So there’s a lot of wait and see, I think that’s been the typical case so far. Of institutions that have set out a plan. They’ve said, we are going to decide by x date. And if you are a returning student, it would be really helpful for you to register for classes so we have a sense of what spaces we’ll need and what we need to be preparing for and thinking about. We’ve had two cases so far where people have expressed a little bit more certainty, or at least a little bit of, here’s specifically what we are thinking at this point. Cal State Fullerton’s provost said earlier this week at a town hall meeting that she is asking faculty to prepare to start virtual with the hope that they can move back to in person operations as the semester goes on. And Purdue University’s president was very, very bullish on returning in person for the beginning of fall 2020 semester. So we’ve seen a few other statements here and there with campus presidents saying we’re expecting this or we’re hoping for this, but there’s been very little definitive plans that have been announced. 

Rich: And what about for students who may have already tested positive for the virus, I know the Chronicle has done some reporting on whether those students might be allowed back on campus and how that split would play out? 

Ellis: And, well, a lot of the plans for on campus operation seem to rely on the idea that universities will be able to test students widely and also track their behavior widely. That is a very, very ambitious goal given the state of what testing exists now. And the plan from Purdue, for example, that that was rolled out this week, or the preliminary ideas for what Purdue is considering included mass testing of students being able to isolate those who test positive and those who came in contact with those who tested positive. And it’s really ambitious, and it’s not something that we’ve seen colleges do this at this point. 

Rich: And speaking on the revenue point, GW is projected to lose roughly $38 million through June 30, based on recent data that’s available, that’s not even including the summer term. What are some of the major financial burdens that you’re expecting universities to enter throughout this? 

Ellis: It depends in a lot of cases, on the type of institution, so universities do a lot outside of teaching and learning that brings in revenue traditionally. Certainly there’s enrollment and I think that’s a really big piece of this. Room and board which a lot of institutions have refunded. But think of all of the auxiliary operations that happen on a college campus from summer intern housing, for example, to the events that come to campus, the conferences, and selling tickets to performances, parking on a lot of campuses, students and past faculty pay universities for parking. So auxiliary revenues, I think will be hit. Campuses that have hospitals and especially those that own their hospitals are experiencing big shortfalls in revenue because non essential clinical procedures and a lot of places have stopped. And that’s a big revenue hit. And people for the next fiscal year have their eye on research and what outside research funding is going to be like. 

Rich: GW specifically has not made the decision to furlough employees yet they have instituted a hiring freeze, what have you seen at others, let’s say smaller institutions, in terms of how they’re dealing with their employees? 

Ellis: It’s been a range, some staff have been furloughed maybe by a few days or for a longer stretch. There are immediate revenue shortfalls and universities are turning to furloughs as a place to make up some of that revenue. And it’s something that people express really deep regret over and is really painful for university staff and some faculty to experience but it is something that we are starting to see play out at campuses. 

Rich: Lindsay, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. 

Rich: That’s all for this week. “Getting to the Bottom of It” is hosted by Rich, and produced by Gwyn Wheeler. Music is produced by Aulx studio. Thank you to Dr. Georges Benjamin, Dr. Lynn Pasquerella and Lindsay Ellis for joining me.

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