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Colleges and universities grapple with decision to return to campus

U.S. colleges and universities are scrambling to finalize their fall plans as coronavirus infections continue to rise in much of the country. While some students, faculty and staff are looking forward to returning to campus, others are raising serious health and safety concerns. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how schools are approaching the decision, as part of our Rethinking College series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We call our series on higher education Rethinking College for a number of reasons, but, this summer, colleges are literally rethinking everything.

    Hari Sreenivasan reports on a pair of schools currently taking different approaches for the fall.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    College administrators and their legal teams have spent months crafting reopening plans, carefully spaced seating charts, daily temperature checks, frequent testing, and threats of expulsion for those hosting large parties.

    Full stadiums cheering for the home team this fall? Unlikely. But most of America's higher ed institutions are pushing ahead with plans for some form of in-person instruction.

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    I'm pleased to publicly announce today our intention and plan to return to in-person classes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That's Dr. Robert Robbins at the end of April. Dr. Robbins is a cardiothoracic surgeon, but also the president of the University of Arizona in Tucson. The public university typically enrolls about 44,000 students.

    It has been promoting its test, trace, and treat plan, and a high-profile reopening task force led by former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona who is a longtime faculty member.

  • Richard Carmona:

    Make no mistake. The cases and deaths are increasing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But last week, during a virtual briefing, Dr. Carmona and Dr. Robbins raised serious concerns about the huge spike in Arizona's COVID-19 cases and indicated current plans to offer a mix of in-person and remote learning may have to change.

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    How many in-person interactions are we going to have? It may be zero.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I spoke with Dr. Robbins soon after that briefing.

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    I'm very, very concerned about having our university open. Certainly, today, we wouldn't do it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What's the level of responsibility that the university has, right? I'm a parent right now. I'm about to send rising sophomore, freshman to your campus. They get sick or worse. What happens?

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    Yes, that's a good question I don't have an answer to.

    We're not different than any other university who's trying to balance the risk of bringing students back to their campus vs. the benefit of continuing their education and getting the ability to do that with their colleagues.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The university says nearly 70 on campus have tested positive for the coronavirus since testing began in March.

    Dr. Robbins hopes as many as half of the faculty will voluntarily return to in-person instruction, but some staff who keep the university running have less flexibility to remain at home. Those and other concerns are causing some on campus to push back on reopening plans.

  • Celeste Gonzales de Bustamante:

    We're very concerned about whether there are enough procedures and policies in place to keep everyone safe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Journalism associate professor Celeste Gonzalez de Bustamante says a small group she represents, the Coalition for Academic Justice, did a survey that showed most of faculty, staff and grad students who responded were uncomfortable returning to campus.

    Many faculty are older, which puts them at greater risk for serious complications from COVID. Bustamante says she and her colleagues share concerns raised at other schools that universities are prioritizing the wrong things.

  • Celeste Gonzales de Bustamante:

    The decisions that are being made are being driven by the finances, the financial situation, and keep — trying to keep the University of Arizona financially solvent, which it is. It has a AA Moody's rating.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The school's tuition will remain the same next year. Dr. Robbins admits money is a factor, but not the only factor.

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    It's very clearly one of the drivers. There's no question about it. We're the largest employer in Southern Arizona. We have already had a few layoffs here, a couple of hundred, as a matter of fact.

    And so the economics of things drive it, but not primarily.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But it's not just faculty raising concerns.

  • Armando Gavin Ramirez:

    I am stressed. I am full of anxiety.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Incoming senior Armando Gavin Ramirez is a Tucson native. Four members of his extended family have died of COVID-19. He says he has underlying health issues and can't afford health insurance, so he will likely stay home. But he feels the school hasn't provided enough support for students who have struggled with remote learning.

  • Armando Gavin Ramirez:

    I have a computer that the audio sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. But I have the Internet that crashes at least twice a day, right?

    Will the university be offering computers? Will they be helping establish better Internet connection? Will they provide the technological needs for these students to be able to succeed in an online environment for an entire semester?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Another question that looms large, beyond the University of Arizona, for those who do decide to return to campus, will social distancing work? Infections have already started spreading at different campuses across the country.

    Recent coronavirus outbreaks at several schools, including the University of Washington and U.C. Berkeley, have been tied to fraternity houses.

    But there are schools not planning to return to campus at all. One of them is Paul Quinn College, a small, religiously affiliated, historically black college in Dallas, Texas, another state grappling with coronavirus.

  • Michael Sorrell:

    I think the first thing that you have to ask yourself honestly is, can you keep your students and your staff safe?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Michael Sorrell is the school's president. His school is keeping the same tuition as last year, but lowering other costs by more than $2,000, as students continue with remote learning.

    He says the risks of the new virus outweigh the benefits of students returning to campus, especially for the community of students he serves.

  • Michael Sorrell:

    To the extent that something to the tune of 98 percent of our students are of color, and those are the communities that are being ravaged at a disproportionate amount by this virus, then, absolutely, we feel that we owe an additional level of concern and care.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are you concerned that people who are writing the checks are going to say, you know, this online education doesn't seem like what I signed up for and what I paid for?

  • Michael Sorrell:

    Yes, I'm absolutely concerned that people will make a different decision. If you're making a different decision, then here's what you are rejecting.

    You are rejecting an institution that put you first, that said your health and safety and well-being was of such concern to us that we were willing to change our economic model to ensure your safety.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Incoming senior Carnealus Manning says, like many students, he'd to return to campus for his last year, but, beyond personal health concerns, he also worries what an outbreak would do to the college he loves.

  • Carnealus Manning:

    For a small institution like Paul Quinn, even a small COVID outbreak, right, could be detrimental to our brand and really just the mission of the institution.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Back in Tucson, preparations continue for some students, staff, and faculty to return to campus in late August.

    Dr. Robbins will be announcing his final decision what that reopening will look like by the end of this month.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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