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OPINION

The steps needed to safely reopen colleges and universities

A new framework shows that higher education is well poised to follow a phased reopening plan that aligns with the four phases in the Commonwealth’s plan to reopen the state.

Emerson College sophomore Mallory Shofi rolls a bin of her belongings.
Emerson College sophomore Mallory Shofi rolls a bin of her belongings.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“When will colleges and universities reopen?” That is the question on the minds of many.

In reality, the better question is, “When will colleges and universities be repopulated?” That’s because teaching and learning, student support services, even clubs and organizations, never actually stopped during the coronavirus pandemic. Even as the critical work of our institutions of higher ed has taken place remotely, we are still very much open. And yet, the perception of a grand reopening is understandable, as is the shared desire to see campuses alive with students, faculty, and staff again.

Recognizing the need for thoughtful ideas from institutions from across the Commonwealth, higher education leaders have been working together to tackle the challenges in repopulating campuses. Together, these institutions educate nearly 500,000 students with 130,000 faculty and staff. We formed the Higher Education Working Group — which comprises 14 campus leaders from public and private higher-ed institutions from across the state — and have provided a framework to the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board.

The working group was designed to represent the rich diversity of Massachusetts higher education: large and small institutions, geographic diversity, research universities, state universities, and community colleges. Our focus is on providing advice about the complex and varied challenges that we all face due to the pandemic. Our guiding principles include ensuring that we protect the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff and people in the communities that surround our campuses, enabling students to make meaningful progress toward their educational goals, and advancing the research and innovation that is so critical to the state’s economy and to fighting COVID-19.

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The framework shows that higher education is well poised to follow a phased reopening plan that aligns with the four phases in the Commonwealth’s plan to reopen the state. In phase one, many colleges and universities are beginning this week to safely reopen research labs and clinical education and services with use of personal protective equipment and social distancing.

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The issue of reopening physical campuses more broadly is more complex and requires additional work in the coming weeks, with most campuses poised to announce their decisions about this fall in late June or early July.

The hope is that phase two can begin this summer. At that point, institutions could begin to expand the physical presence of students and staff on their campuses gradually. This phase will bring cautious, small-scale reopening of targeted on-campus programs, including opportunities for a limited number of students to complete academic activities that may not have been possible to deliver remotely in the spring.

Based on the framework developed by the Higher Education Working Group, any large-scale reopening of campuses would take place no earlier than the Commonwealth’s phase three. This is when residence halls, dining halls, and classrooms are carefully repopulated. Vigilance will be critical and will depend on continued progress on health metrics in Massachusetts.

Before reopening, every college or university will need to prepare a comprehensive plan that includes campus-specific protocols for critical actions such as symptom monitoring, social distancing, use of masks, testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine practices. Campuses will need strategies to reorganize schedules and classroom spaces to enable social distancing protocols and will probably need to make many classes available both online and in-person. Plans are needed to configure residence halls and dining services to enable proper distancing. Although there are many similar needs among colleges and universities, campus reopening plans will have to be tailored; we are not one-size-fits-all.

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The science and technology are evolving rapidly, so plans must be flexible to accommodate new knowledge and capabilities as they become available. To consider these issues, the Higher Education Working Group formed a special subgroup to provide advice to institutions across the Commonwealth. We will provide initial guidance in early June, with work continuing into the coming academic year.

So, when will colleges and universities “reopen” in Massachusetts? The planning work of the Higher Education Working Group, and efforts well underway at every institution, is squarely aimed at enabling our campuses to welcome students, faculty, and staff back as soon as it is safe to do so. Exactly when that will be depends very much on citizens across Massachusetts working together to slow the spread of this virus and on individual campuses making their own determinations of what is right for their communities. Institutions across the Commonwealth are bringing all of their creativity and compassion to bear as we plan for fall.

Campus life in the coming year will be different. That much is certain. Every member of our campus communities must be prepared to play a role in ensuring we can operate within the latest safety and public health guidance. We all want to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, on our campuses and in our neighborhoods. That goal, more than any other, will drive our work in the coming weeks and months.

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Laurie Leshin is president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and leads the Massachusetts Higher Education Working Group. She is a member of the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board.