The colleges and universities that reopened in the fall — for the most part, with success — got an evolving lesson in how to keep students and faculty safe in the midst of a global pandemic. Now, as a new semester begins, many more colleges are bringing students back to campus while facing a new set of health and safety challenges, including the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.
On the what worked side of the ledger, three lessons rise to the top:
Test everyone. Robust “surveillance testing” proved to be the backbone of successful campus reopenings — from rural Maine to downtown Chicago. This means testing the entire campus community — symptomatic or not — on a frequent and recurring basis.
I spoke last week to a Northeastern University student who recounted the phone call he received from our testing center, where we conduct more than 5,000 tests a day. He was shocked to learn of his positive test result. He had no symptoms and said he hadn’t engaged in risky behavior such as not wearing a mask while socializing with others. Nevertheless, he isolated for 14 days, taking his courses online to ensure the safety of his classmates and professors. This scenario repeated itself thousands of times nationwide, contributing to very low positivity rates on campuses.
Yes, this scale of testing is a significant expense that not all institutions can shoulder. The spring semester presents opportunities for pooling resources and forging partnerships between government, third-party labs, and higher education.
Share ownership. Despite dire predictions that returning students would act recklessly, we found that their desire to party was surpassed by their desire to remain on campus. Because students desperately wanted to avoid a repeat of last spring’s abrupt shutdowns, they were willing to change their behavior. As a result, campus-wide public health campaigns had fertile ground in which to take root and blossom. I saw this sense of collective responsibility as I walked Northeastern’s campus, heartened by the sea of masks and responsible distancing on display.
Be agile and innovate. The portrayal of higher education as rigid and lumbering is often just a caricature. At Northeastern, we turned our weekly leadership team meetings into daily troubleshooting sessions. Administrators from every corner of the university — dining, facilities, information technology — showed up each morning, armed with inventive proposals that completely reimagined campus life. Titles and job descriptions became obsolete. And when we made missteps, which we did, we pivoted quickly and didn’t worry about who was to blame.
This agile work continues as our attention is turning toward vaccines. We have been planning for vaccine distribution on campus, including partnering with the state and the private sector to build a supply chain, and determining our ability to serve as a community vaccination site. We recently started administering vaccines to hundreds of people who provide direct COVID-facing care at Northeastern.
Now for the other side of the ledger. It would be impossible for an undertaking this large and complex to be error-free. And, of course, the elements that didn’t go as well this fall offer the most powerful lessons.
Safety and wellness include mental health. No amount of operational success matters if you don’t account for the human factor. Our relentless focus on minimizing transmission of the virus led us to underestimate the mental health strain on students whose daily lives were often confined to dorm rooms or apartments. While this tension between controlling spread and minimizing social isolation has played out around the world, the seclusion was particularly difficult for first-year students, many of whom arrived on campus without existing social networks.
We became laser-focused on creating opportunities for students to interact safely. This was often as simple as rethinking library space or installing a series of fire pits across campus to create safe outdoor social gatherings. A colleague summed up what we were trying to achieve in a single word: joy.
We can’t replace the magic of human interaction. There’s no doubt that technology will be an important and enduring part of post-COVID education, but this fall also reaffirmed the power of place. The on-site residential learning model that has worked wonders for more than 900 years remains the gold standard for undergraduates.
That means advances in classroom technology cannot, and should not, displace in-person instruction. This fall, nearly every institution enhanced its remote teaching technology to weather the ups and downs of the pandemic. But we may have been too successful. Simply put, it became too easy for students to take classes from their dorm rooms, despite the fact that their college or university moved mountains to reopen and offer an on-campus experience. Fortunately, as the semester progressed, many students recognized the benefits of engaging on a human level, in person, with their professors.
Sweat the small stuff. High-minded concerns about pedagogy and research continuity diverted our attention from seemingly trivial but ultimately consequential issues. At Northeastern, when we modified campus move-in procedures, we didn’t take into account the enormous strain this would place on our mail centers. They quickly became overwhelmed by a flood of additional dorm-room supplies and care packages. This snafu dominated social media discussions about our reopening.
Some challenges, such as retooling mailrooms, are easily fixed. Tending to students’ mental health and optimizing classroom instruction require ongoing work. The spring semester will provide opportunities to fine-tune and increase safe human interactions across every dimension of campus life.
As the world moves into a new phase of managing the pandemic — with universities poised to play a critical role — perhaps the biggest lesson learned this fall was that building a culture of flexibility and innovation is the name of the game. Other crises will hit. The importance of our mission — and its impact on society — demands that higher education be prepared for every possibility.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.