The leaders of major Boston-area colleges and universities say they are hoping to hold some or all of their courses on campus this fall, even as epidemiologists warn that colleges by their very nature might put students and faculty at risk for COVID-19.
“We are going to have to be more flexible than we’ve ever been in the way that we offer education,” Boston University president Robert Brown said Wednesday, speaking on a panel hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce where he and other campus leaders outlined how they plan to create safe campus environments this fall.
But experts in infectious disease said that will be a nearly impossible task.
“It’s going to be very challenging because some of the things that we know carry the highest risk of COVID transmission are those activities that colleges typically have lots of," said Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He pointed to the often crowded nature of classrooms, dining halls, dormitories, and parties.
“There are many reasons to try, and there are many challenges to surmount,” said Kevin Volpp, the health policy division chief at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “You need a really good plan, really flawless execution . . . and a little bit of luck to stay open.”
Brown and the leaders of Emerson College, Northeastern University, Bunker Hill Community College, and the University of Massachusetts system all expressed optimism that they can transform the age-old methods and traditions of campus life in unprecedented ways to meet the new, constant threat of the virus.
“It is our hope to have some in-person classes . . . in the fall term,” said Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, in the heart of downtown Boston. Pelton said his administrators are still trying to determine the structure of the fall semester. An announcement should come in the next two or three weeks, he said.
Sax said that schools could face another set of challenges if a second wave of the virus strikes this fall after students have already returned to campus. The fear is that colleges would have to suddenly evacuate their campuses, repeating the drill they went through in the spring.
“We’re all kind of bracing ourselves for that and concerned about it,” he said about a second wave.
The college presidents said they are working on new housing arrangements, classroom schedules, and other precautions. But the experts concede that they can only go so far in attempting to change the behaviors of the estimated 140,000 students who come to Boston every year.
Brown said his university is working on developing its own testing facility. Students would be divided into small residential groups in the dorms that would decrease the amount of mixing between students, and classes would be reimagined so that some students could start the semester online then come to campus when they are able.
“There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty that we have,” Brown said. “It’s very hard to be very precise.”
Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern, who has vowed to work toward opening in the fall, said his school will do its own testing and contact tracing and reduce the density of spaces on campus, including dorms. To that end, the university has already secured 2,000 extra beds in area apartments and hotels, he said.
Northeastern officials announced Wednesday that some faculty, staff, and students working in critical research labs and administrative functions that are hard to perform off campus will begin a slow return to campus in coming days. But they have yet to specify how they will bring back their 14,000 undergrads.
Martin Meehan, the UMass president, said the state university system is preparing for “all options” and said he is eager to restart much of the system’s $683 million of research, calling that “a first step” in reopening.
Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill, said the majority of classes this fall will be taught online or in a hybrid format with a smaller number held in person. Some of the school’s support staff will continue to work from home to allow more physical distancing on campus, she said.
Much of the plan for Bunker Hill, which draws a majority of its students from an 8-mile radius around the Charlestown campus, depends on the city’s reopening plans and whether public transportation is safe and available by fall.
Scientists and health professionals remain skeptical about the ambitious plans to bring students back and said much will depend on the details.
Volpp, at Penn, is advising his institution and another college on the fall semester and said the questions administrators are tackling don’t have easy answers.
Colleges may be able to limit class sizes, require masks throughout campus, and reduce the number of students in a dorm. But can they ensure that students will live under such strict social distance requirements 24 hours a day? Volpp said that question remains unanswered.
Even if dorm rooms are all converted to singles, students must still share bathrooms, and research about the coronavirus has raised concerns about whether it can be spread through fecal aerosol droplets from flushing toilets, Volpp said.
“That kind of question creates challenges for college administrators,” he said. “It is a risk-benefit equation. It’s impossible to make this zero risk.”
College campuses are especially close-knit communities where students, faculty, and staff thrive on those daily interactions and conversations. But that unique environment may be their Achilles’ heel, experts said.
“College campuses are small worlds,” said Kim Weeden, a sociology professor at Cornell University.
Weeden, along with her colleague Ben Cornwell, studied student course selections at Cornell during the fall of 2019 and found that in a typical week, a student crossed classes with more than 500 other undergraduates and graduates. That excludes interactions they may have in the dorms, dining halls, or walking between classrooms.
Universities can change schedules so students take fewer classes during the week to reduce their interactions, Weeden said. But that’s only part of the solution.
“Course enrollments are just one piece of the puzzle” she said. “The really tricky questions come around housing and dining and transition between classes, where they have fewer levers to pull.”
Not all campus leaders have been so optimistic about returning. In an op-ed published in The Atlantic last week, Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, said schools are deluding themselves if they think they can safely reopen in a few months.
“We should not let our own financial and reputational worries cloud our judgment about matters of life and death,” Sorrell wrote.
Still, some public health experts said colleges can bring back students to some degree, and many are trying to figure out how many students and how.
Sandro Galea, the dean of the BU School of Public Health, said he expects institutions to adapt with smaller classes, fewer students in dorms, everyone on campus wearing masks, contact tracing programs, efforts to boost hygiene, and areas cordoned off to isolate those who may get the virus.
“Ultimately, it’s an issue of managing risk,” Galea said. “How do colleges and universities adapt to the risk?”
Gerri Taylor, a member of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force and a retired director of the Bentley University health center, said colleges will need this summer to determine whether they can safely open.
Some colleges still need to replenish their supplies of N95 masks and face shields, after donating them to hospitals during the height of the crisis, Taylor said.
“They need that equipment pretty desperately,” she said.
For many colleges, the situation depends on the public health guidelines in place at the time, where the institution is in the country and its ability to isolate the campus, and the financial resources it has to do the testing, hire more clinicians, and buy the protective gear, Taylor said.
Ultimately, it may be more difficult for colleges in big cities that are hot spots for the virus, Volpp said.
“Colleges in Boston and colleges in New York will have bigger challenges,” Volpp said. “There is a lot of interest and strong desire to do it . . . but one thing that’s clear as you think through the challenges — it’s going to be a difficult road.”