At a Senate hearing Tuesday about reopening the US economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, was asked about what he would tell school officials who were anxious to see students physically arrive on their campuses and in their buildings in the fall.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, asked Fauci to look three months down the road, where he said there will be 5,000 campuses nationwide welcoming back 20 million college students, and 100,000 public schools welcoming 50 million students.
“What would you say to the chancellor of the University of Tennessee Knoxville or the principal of the public school about how to persuade parents and students how to return to school in August?” Alexander asked. “Let’s start with treatments and vaccines first.”
Fauci’s answer was a bit stark to those hoping to feel comforted about potentially returning to campus.
“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.
He mentioned that the current COVID-19 treatment drug available showed “modest” efficacy, and was used only in hospital patients — “not yet, or maybe ever, to be used either yet as prophylaxis or treatment.”
Fauci continued: “If this were a situation where you had a vaccine, that would really be the end of the issue in a positive way. But as I mentioned in my opening remarks, even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term.”
Fauci had noted in his opening remarks that there are eight vaccine candidates in development, and that he hopes to have a vaccine in advanced trials by late fall or early winter.
After Fauci gave his answer, Alexander asked Admiral Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services, if colleges could develop a strategy where every student on campus is tested at the same time.
Giroir said he expected there to be there to be 25 to 30 million tests per month by that point in time, saying, “yes technically, we will have the ability,” adding, “it’s certainly possible to test all the students.”
However, Giroir said, it would depend on how bad the community spread is at that point, and said “it’s much more likely there would be a surveillance strategy done, where you may test some of the students at different times to give an assurance there’s no circulation.”
He also said there are experimental strategies that could be used, such as “pooling samples,” where one test could evaluate as many as 10 or 20 samples — “so essentially one test could test 20 students” — or testing wastewater from a dorm or section of campus “to determine if there is CV in that sewerage.”
The questioning Tuesday came as universities are under increasing pressure to offer some understanding of what the fall semester could look like amid the pandemic.
On Tuesday, the chancellor of California State University said that classes at its 23 campuses would take place almost exclusively online, according to media reports.
And in late April, Harvard University officials said that the school is preparing for many, if not all, of its classes to be delivered remotely when the fall semester starts in early September, an acknowledgment that it may be unsafe for students to immediately return to campus. (The Ivy League school briefly considered delaying the start of the academic year until spring 2021, but ultimately rejected that idea.)
Colleges and universities have made do in recent weeks with video conference calls and pretaped lectures, but that is unlikely to satisfy students or families who are footing significant tuition bills, if it continues into the fall.
Already students across the country have filed class-action lawsuits against more than two dozen institutions, including Boston University, Northeastern, Brown, and the University of California Berkeley, demanding tuition refunds because of what they say is the inferior quality of online education.
Meanwhile, locally, the number of private colleges and universities in New England at risk of closing or merging has doubled amid the pandemic, according to a report by Edmit, a Boston-based college advising company. Before the coronavirus, 13 institutions in New England were in danger of closing within six years; now, that number has jumped to 25, Edmit found.
Nationwide, 110 more colleges and universities are now in peril, bringing the total number to 345 institutions, Edmit found.
Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.