The nation’s top infectious disease expert on Tuesday offered a blunt reality check to college presidents who have been bullish about reopening their campuses to a flood of students this fall.
During a Senate hearing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told Congress that there are unlikely to be vaccines or treatments widely available by this fall to help assure students worried about returning to campus life. Asked, for instance, by a Tennessee senator what he would tell the chancellor of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Fauci offered a stark answer.
“I would be very realistic with the chancellor and tell her that in this case, that the idea of having treatments available, or a vaccine, to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something of a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said.
Fauci’s comments come as universities scramble to develop plans for the fall semester, shore up their enrollments, and stabilize their budgets, which have taken significant hits in the past few months, possibly putting some institutions at risk of closure.
Many college presidents have sent carefully worded e-mails to students in recent weeks assuring them that they are eager to bring students back to campus this fall and are developing plans to do so. Most don’t expect to make a final decision about the fall until June or early July.
Last week, Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun told students in an e-mail, “It is our intention to reopen our campuses this fall and offer on-site instruction and a residential experience for our students.”
Northeastern officials on Tuesday said the university had taken the health concerns that Fauci mentioned into consideration when developing reopening plans.
“Yes, everything that was said today has already been accounted for in our scenario planning,” said Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs.
Northeastern’s plan to reopen includes rethinking how classroom space and dorms are used to keep students healthy. The university is also looking for additional student housing in apartment buildings, hotels, and other institutions in and around Boston to accommodate social distancing requirements. Northeastern has also said that new safety protocols would be put in place on campus, including the use of masks, staggered business hours, and the large-scale deployment of testing and contact tracing.
But for some institutions the costs of implementing those health measures isn’t feasible.
On Tuesday, the chancellor of the California State University system announced that a majority of classes would be online this fall. The system enrolls about 500,000 students across 23 campuses, and chancellor Timothy White said with more waves of infection expected in the fall, schools could bring students back only to send them home again, adding further disruption to their education.
The California university system also estimated that it would cost $25 million a week to regularly conduct coronavirus testing, and it’s uncertain if there are enough test kits or human tracers available to do the work, White said.
The University of Massachusetts system has not determined its fall semester plans. But UMass president Marty Meehan, who serves on Governor Charlie Baker’s higher education reopening advisory panel, said the decision will be “guided by science.”
“I take what Dr. Fauci says very seriously and have great respect for the role that he and his colleagues have played throughout this pandemic," Meehan said. "We will continue to listen closely to guidance put forward by state and federal officials as we formulate our plan for the fall.”
A handful of Massachusetts colleges and universities are already leaning toward a virtual fall semester. Some two-year public colleges, including Cape Cod Community College, have announced that the fall courses will primarily be delivered online.
Simmons University said that while it hasn’t made a decision about the fall semester, most of its undergraduate classes will also be available online. Simmons has inked a tuition-sharing partnership with 2U Inc., a private education technology company that already handles the university’s online graduate nursing program, for the undergraduate classes.
Helen Drinan, president of Simmons, said the university wanted to have an online option ready and available in case students can’t come to campus or the health situation remains uncertain.
Simmons wanted “an assured way to offer undergraduate education,” Drinan said. “I am sleeping at night much better than I was the last six weeks.”
Higher education leaders have been hoping for a coronavirus test that was as easy to use and as accessible as a pregnancy test, but the reality is much more complicated, Drinan said. The current test kits cost about $100 each.
“We can’t test every single student every single day,” she said. But “education can’t come to a halt.”
Simmons hasn’t determined how much the online classes will cost students, but tuition is likely to be lower than the traditional classroom instruction, Drinan said.
Lasell University in Newton is also developing multiple options for students, such as an opportunity to live on campus while taking online classes, or the option to take online classes from home.
“According to current reports, it seems we have a long way to go before sufficient testing is available,” said Michael Alexander, Lasell’s president. “That is why we developed a flexible approach that allows us to adjust quickly to whatever the circumstances are at that time."
With the fall semester still so uncertain, most colleges expect their revenue will decline, and some are already taking steps to cut costs.
Merrimack College in North Andover laid off 30 employees earlier this month. The UMass Medical School has furloughed 100 employees for six months. At UMass Boston, nearly 350 non-tenure-track lecturers, nearly half of those the campus employs in a semester, have been notified that they are unlikely to be needed in the fall.
“As the summer progresses and the university is better able to gauge its academic needs in the face of evolving, COVID-driven health and budgetary conditions, we hope to be able to reappoint some of them,” said DeWayne Lehman, a spokesman for the UMass Boston.
The financial situation could be even more distressing to small, private universities without large endowments to cushion their losses. Higher education experts suggest that COVID-19 could speed up the closures of some struggling colleges.
Eastern Nazarene, an 850-student Christian college in Quincy, is hoping to open the campus safely in the fall and student enrollment is looking healthy so far, said Jack Connell, the college’s president.
“It’s a highly uncertain time,” Connell said. “Like virtually every other college that does not have a large endowment, we are dependent upon reliable tuition revenue to operate. And so if we are not able to open campus in the fall, or if enrollment is down substantially, we will be under a significant level of financial pressure.”
Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.