Colleges promise return to in-person classes for fall

Experts predict that despite falling case rates and the introduction of vaccines, the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for months. While estimates vary, some scientists do not predict a return to the pre-2020 way of life within the next two years. What at first seemed like a matter of weeks has turned into a long haul.

While “normal” (if it ever returns) may still be far off, college administrations are now saying that in fall of 2021, they’ll get as close as they can. More in-person instruction and more students on campus are the dominant themes of announcements about the upcoming term.

“Make no mistake, vaccination is the game-changer,” Antonio Calcado, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Rutgers University, said in a video statement. “Our fall of ’21 will look completely different.”

Rutgers played this academic year relatively safe compared to other institutions. The vast majority of classes were fully online, and residence halls were at 20 percent capacity.  Rutgers is now planning to have close to 100 percent of students back on all three campuses in the fall.

That doesn’t mean everyone will be there at the same time, Calcado stressed. Staggered and rotational schedules will be needed, and mask wearing and social distancing will still be required. But all students will have some in-person instruction.

“Where I see us back to what we were in 2019, I don’t think reasonably that this will happen before September of ’22,” he said in the video. “I truly believe we’ll probably be looking at ’23.”

Colleges and universities across the country have been under tremendous financial, political and student pressure to reopen their campuses this academic year. Institutions holding classes fully online -- the standard for spring of 2020 -- are now a small minority.

Several other large public university systems have made similar announcements about the fall.

“I know we'll never get back to normal. I know that,” Tommy Thompson, president of the University of Wisconsin system, told the Associated Press. “But I'm going to fight like hell to get back as close to normal as we possibly can. With testing, with vaccinations, with having our classes open, our dorms open, hopefully we'll be playing sports, having a good time once again.”

The system is aiming to hold 75 percent of classes in person.  About 80 percent of classes were face-to-face before the pandemic, Thompson said.

The University of Tennessee also announced its fall goal last week: “Students who attend a University of Tennessee campus can expect to have a traditional college experience in the fall as UT campuses across the state expand their in-person course offerings,” the university system said in a release.

Other public institutions that have made similar announcements now include Arizona State University, Auburn University, Clarion University, Clemson University, Edinboro University, Kent State University, Oklahoma State University, Portland State University, Purdue University, Salisbury University, the University of Arizona, the University of Iowa, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Wyoming, as well as the University of California and Maryland systems

At some public institutions, conditions might vary throughout a system. For example, the California State University system has announced an intention to bring students back in person next fall. (The behemoth -- which enrolls nearly half a million students -- has been one of the most prominent to remain nearly fully online these past six months.) But leaders at its Chico State University campus say they’re going to stick with a mostly online model. Only 20 to 30 percent of classes will have some face-to-face component.

Some university leaders have been careful to not make any promises about how much instruction will be in person.

“While details remain to be finalized, we are planning for a robust in‑person student experience both inside and outside the classroom for fall 2021 and beyond,” officials from Washington State University wrote in a message to campus. “While each of our campus locations around the state has its own constraints and opportunities, we look forward to a return to in‑person activities as soon as possible.”

Private institutions have also announced their intentions to return to primarily in-person learning for the fall. That list so far includes Bradley University, the College of Charleston, DePaul University, La Sierra University and Villa Maria College.

As is now well-known, what an institution intends to do in a pandemic is not always what comes to pass. Most college presidents will continue to walk a delicate line between convincing students that things will improve and overpromising them. But for some leaders, the practicality and caution with which they’re approaching planning still can’t overshadow the optimism they feel about the future.

“We’re coming back,” said Calcado, of Rutgers. “We will come back.”

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Cases rise (again) on college campuses

COVID-19 cases are on the decline nationwide. College campuses are another story.

Though the large, mostly public universities that set records for their high case counts last semester are actually doing better than they did last term, other campuses -- including those that kept cases low in the fall -- are seeing numbers rise.

Boston College, for example, set a new record on Sunday for most cases in a week, with 95 cases among students.

The college, like some others, said the blame fell on students, specifically freshmen, who have not been following safety rules. The situation means further restrictions, such as a no-guest policy or the premature closure of campus, could be on the table if things don’t improve, Michael Lochhead, acting vice president for student affairs, said in an email to students.

“This rise in cases is a direct result of students letting their guard down with respect to pandemic health precautions,” he wrote. “The pattern of cases clearly demonstrates that many students are ignoring the basic health and safety protocols that allowed us to remain in-class and in-person on campus during the first semester.”

The administration suspended some students or evicted them from college housing for holding large gatherings without masks, Lochhead wrote.

Other institutions have suggested their higher numbers are due to generally high case counts across the country. While the trend line for nationwide daily counts is currently in steep decline, colleges and universities started their semesters during a countrywide high point. When more students arrive on campus with COVID-19, there is likely to be more spread.

Duke University, for example, found only 26 students with positive test results during fall’s entry testing. This semester, it found 56. The university received much positive attention for its safety protocols last term, but it has already overshot its fall case numbers.

Many colleges are testing more of their students more frequently this semester. However, they also have brought more students to their campuses and are holding more in-person classes.

While the increase in testing is good, not all tests are equal, said Chris Marsicano, director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College earlier this month. Many institutions, he said, are using antigen tests to diagnose COVID-19. Those have a higher false negative rate than PCR tests, which are the current gold standard.

“PCR tests are expensive,” he said. “Just because you’re testing multiple times a week doesn’t mean you’re catching all the cases.”

More frequent testing and the arrival of a vaccine, both good things, could also give some students a false sense of security, Marsicano said.

“You think, ‘Hey we’re testing all the time, I got a negative, I’m fine, I can go party now,’ when in reality that added risky behavior is likely to spread the disease even with a negative test,” he said.

A number of other colleges are adopting or looking at tighter restrictions, but to varying degrees of strictness. The University of Miami, for example, ordered new restrictions on student gatherings and some in-person activities earlier this month. But in-person classes were still on, and the gym and pool were still open. Students were allowed to go outside for work, internships and exercise. The university lifted some restrictions this week.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, on the other hand, issued a stricter lockdown Feb. 7. The new policies prohibit students from leaving residences except to get food or medical care or for mandatory COVID-19 tests. Even exercising outside alone is currently banned. (The administration has said it may lift some of its restrictions before two weeks, if things are going well, and is offering virtual fitness classes to students.)

Other colleges that have announced new restrictions in the past two weeks include Calvin University, Clarkson University, Franklin Pierce University, Georgetown University, Plymouth State University, Providence College, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Virginia.

New variants are also making their way onto college campuses, though it’s unclear so far if they are driving significant spread. Researchers say the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first reported in Britain, is more easily transmissible and may potentially be more deadly.

In the past week, three additional institutions reported that they now have cases of the variant on campus. They are Davidson College, the University of Central Florida and UVA. Those three join six other institutions, bringing the total to at least nine.

On some of those campuses, the variant arrived via student travel to Britain. In others community spread is suspected. The variant has been found in 42 states and 1,277 people so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Typical COVID-19 diagnostic tests don’t check for the B.1.1.7 variant, so in most cases, it’s only found where people are searching for it. At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, President Tim Sands told students that they should assume it has already infiltrated their community.

“We are seeing evidence among our student population that the prevalence of moderate symptoms is increasing,” Sands wrote in a message to campus.

While the spread of the new variant in part led to strict lockdowns in Britain, stateside the response has been more muted. Experts have urged the public to strictly adhere to hand washing and social distancing. The CDC has recommended wearing two masks instead of one.

The high case counts on college campuses have been given new import because of new data released last month suggesting that colleges that returned to in-person instruction led to increased infections in the counties where they are located. College leaders and campus health officials have largely disputed the claim.

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U of Memphis raises minimum wage to $15

COVID-19 ushered in an era of painful cuts for most colleges and universities. Layoffs, furloughs and lost raises have become common for staff and faculty members at many institutions.

But last month, the University of Memphis announced that it would be raising its staff wage floor in June, bringing the university’s lowest earners up to $15 per hour.

“We are very excited. It’s not something we expected to happen in the current climate, especially because of COVID,” said Meghan Cullen, an administrative coordinator at Memphis and vice president of the university’s United Campus Workers chapter, a union for faculty, staff and graduate students. “It is definitely way past due for the working poor to receive a living wage.”

The move from the administration follows a years-long campaign for $15 per hour from the UCW chapter. M. David Rudd, president of the university, said the administration had been working on raising the wage floor since he arrived and just recently felt things were finally in a place where the change could be made.

“It’s not only the right thing to do for the right reasons but also it’s about our ability to be competitive in employing people,” he said. “The real challenge for us was sustainability and not having to do it by increasing tuition costs to students. We’ve had no tuition increases here for four out of the last seven years. We simply didn’t want to cost-shift on the backs of students.”

Memphis has been able to maintain enrollment through the pandemic, Rudd said, and managed to make cuts through natural attrition and consolidation, without any furloughs or layoffs outside the athletics department.

Despite Tennessee’s minimum wage remaining flat for the past 12 years at $7.25 per hour, the university increased the wage floor four times since 2014, not counting this most recent increase. The university minimum is currently $12 per hour.

For the union, the university minimum wage was not just an economic issue, Cullen said, but a racial justice and gender equity one. The chapter’s most recent salary study, from 2019, estimated that about 335 people at the university were making below $15 per hour. Of those, 63 percent were women and 78 percent were Black. In contrast, the top earners at the university were majority white and male. (Rudd said that currently, because of recent salary increases, only about 100 people are now making less than $15 per hour.)

Such a situation -- people of color at the bottom and white people at the top -- isn’t uncommon at public universities. In the South, that low-wage workforce is especially likely to be majority Black.

“We’re paying certain people at the top 10 times the amount that we’re paying folks at the bottom,” said Cullen. “That income inequality is just not something that is sustainable.”

Memphis, Tenn., is among the poorest metropolitan areas in America. Margaret Cook, former vice president of the UCW chapter and current vice president for public, health care and education workers with the Communication Workers of America (UCW’s parent union), said the university, a major employer in the city, can have a hand in fixing that.

“No one should have to work for the state and get food stamps. That just doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “We had a lot of women who were working two jobs to make ends meet.”

Those women, she said, would sometimes see their children struggle in school.

Thelma Jean Rimmer, a former custodian at the university who helped found and organize the UCW chapter, said she too hopes that staff will get to spend more time with their families because of the increase. She retired after 14 years with the university making $12 an hour, the minimum. There were some things she and her family just couldn’t afford to do, she said.

“I didn’t want other people to have to say that to their children,” she said. “I always told them I would fight for everyone, even the people that come behind.”

United Campus Workers chapters are unions that cover all employees at their public universities, typically in right-to-work states. Because the institution has no legal mandate to bargain with a UCW chapter (and employees are under no obligation to join), they typically face uphill battles in changing conditions at the institution, relying on public pressure campaigns, protests and community support to try to force decisions.

The chapter won significant support for the $15 floor both inside and outside campus. Both the Faculty Senate and the Staff Senate at Memphis passed resolutions supporting the measure in 2018. The next year, the mayor of Shelby County vetoed a $1 million grant to the university, saying the administration needed to pay its workers a living wage. Other entities in Memphis, such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, raised their wage floors to $15 as well.

Workers also turned up pressure with protests and symbolic events. Rimmer said she and others would drive the three hours to Nashville to lobby state legislators about the wage floor. In 2018, campus custodians signed and delivered a card to Rudd that read, “All we want for Christmas is a living wage.” Cook said the union succeeded in attracting members with events like a Juneteenth celebration that made the union not only about work. The “wall-to-wall” model of United Campus Workers, encompassing all employees at an institution regardless of department, she said, builds solidarity between different campus constituencies.

In 2019, Rudd committed to lifting the floor to $15 in the next two years, although because there was not a publicized plan or hard deadline, some union members were wary. The university committed to a $13 per hour floor by July 2020 but then reneged on the plan after the pandemic hit.

“It’s hard to believe somebody at their word when you’re not given the details,” Cullen said. “The administration did keep their word and they are going to be pushing forward to $15, and we’re incredibly thankful that Dr. Rudd is taking this step to do it.” In the future, she said, UCW would like to be brought further into the process.

Next steps for the union will focus on limiting the effects of wage compression from the raise, Cullen said, expanding the minimum to university contractors and asking for health insurance for graduate students.

Cook said the University of Memphis administration could serve as a model and example for other universities across the South.

“I think the South is changing. UCW now has such a large voice in Tennessee that people are listening,” she said. “To see it happening in Memphis, I don’t think they will have any other choice but to do it in Knoxville, to do it in Chattanooga, to do it in Nashville.”

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COVID-19 variant now found on six campuses

The University of Michigan was the only major institution to have reported evidence of the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.7 on campus at the beginning of last week.

Five additional universities have since joined that list.

Tulane University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Miami; the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington have all now reported cases of the B.1.1.7 variant.

While viral mutations are not always cause for alarm, the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus, first discovered in Britain, transmits more rapidly and efficiently than previously observed variants of SARS-CoV-2. Some studies have suggested it also may be more deadly, but there is not currently scientific consensus on the severity of the variant.

With nearly 1,000 cases of the new variant so far in 34 states, it was only a matter of time before it reached college campuses.

“At the beginning of the semester, we identified two factors as potential difficulties: new, more contagious variants of the virus, and COVID fatigue,” said President Julio Frenk of Miami in a video statement. “This is precisely what we are seeing play out. Our analysis of test results indicates that some cases right now are caused by the U.K. strain of the coronavirus.”

Florida is so far the worst state for the B.1.1.7 variant, with 343 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida tops California, the state with the next highest count, by 187 cases. (Florida officials have attributed this to more testing for the variant.)

In response to the new variant cases, as well as a general COVID-19 surge across campus, Miami last week announced new restrictions for students on its campuses until at least Feb. 16. Large gatherings and any in-person activities are canceled and students are advised not to gather in groups of more than 10. In-person classes, internships, athletics and employment may continue, and the gym and pool will remain open.

“It may be tempting to dismiss the threat of new variants. Yet we all know that underestimating this virus is a mistake,” Frenk said in the video. He is also a physician and professor of public health and was Mexico’s health minister in the early 2000s.

The University of Michigan has so far reported 39 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, according to a university spokesperson. At least one introduction of the variant into the community was related to travel to Britain. The university recently finished a two-week stay-at-home order for students, though those restrictions have now expired.

The two-week pause on activities was meant to give the campus time to sequence its positive test results and check for variants. When the two weeks were complete, university officials felt that objective had been accomplished.

“There hasn’t been widespread spreading of that variant,” the spokesperson said. The health department in Washtenaw County, where the university is located, similarly did not recommend extending the order. The university has seen over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 since Jan. 1, meaning the variant has only been found in a small minority of cases.

UT Austin has so far reported only two cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. There have so far been 35 known cases of the variant in Texas. A university spokesperson said the administration is actively looking into whether new health guidelines are appropriate.

Tulane University in New Orleans has so far reported one case of the variant that has been confirmed by the CDC. The administration established a two-week period of new restrictions during a surge last month, but with that period complete, cases have remained low, indicating that the variant does not seem to be driving a new surge, a spokesperson for the university said.

Typical tests for COVID-19 don’t indicate whether a certain variant is present or not. That means that health departments and universities only find evidence of B.1.1.7 where they’re looking for it. It is possible that cases of the new variant could be swirling in other places in the country -- or on other college campuses -- undetected.

The United States is currently 38th in the world for genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, according to data from The Washington Post, and it is sequencing just 0.36 percent of confirmed cases, according to an analysis from Science.

In higher education, so far only research universities have reported cases of the variant, possibly because they have many students, but also possibly because many of them are doing sequencing for the virus in their own university labs. UT Austin, Michigan and Tulane all have had some hand in sequencing the positive cases on their campuses.

In Britain, where the variant was first discovered, government officials responded in part with strict national lockdowns, where households were prohibited from meeting and nonessential stores were closed.

The CDC has predicted that the B.1.1.7 variant could be the dominant strain of the virus in the United States by March.

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After allegations of secret gifts, a chancellor emeritus is fired

Ron Galatolo was chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District for 20 years. Then, in 2019, he became a chancellor emeritus for the district.

But last week, the district’s Board of Trustees announced that it had terminated its relationship with Galatolo in light of facts stemming from an investigation by the county district attorney.

“In the course of the district’s cooperation with that investigation, various matters have come to light that do not appear to have been presented to the board by former Chancellor Galatolo,” the board wrote in a media statement. “These matters include the apparent use of public funds for retirement incentives, undisclosed personal relationships with vendors for the district, and undisclosed receipt of gifts from contractors who work for the District. These gifts appear to have included high-end travel, concert tickets and meals and do not appear to have been reported on a Form 700 as required by law.”

In 2019, when Galatolo was still chancellor, he and the board entered into mediation to resolve a dispute, the details of which have not been released by the board. That mediation ended in a settlement agreement, stipulating that Galatolo was no longer chancellor but would be furnished with a new employment contract as chancellor emeritus. He would be paid his same salary, $38,975 per month, and be responsible for developing a program with California State University. The settlement also stipulated that parties could not disparage one another or cast each other in a bad light. Public communications regarding the departure were to be limited to a joint press release and mutually agreed-upon talking points.

The new employment agreement for the chancellor emeritus position was signed in August 2019. Before his termination this month, Galatolo was the most highly compensated employee of the district.

The next month, September 2019, The Almanac, a community newspaper, reported that the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office issued search warrants in connection with Galatolo’s tenure.

"There are allegations of improprieties with the construction and purchasing contracts and allegations of harassment of an employee," the district attorney told the paper at the time.

The office confirmed that the investigation is still ongoing.

“We are not going into further details of the investigation at this time,” a spokesperson for the office said via email.

A recent letter from the board to Galatolo alleges that the former chancellor refused to answer questions from the board about his conduct.

“Given your compensation level and the fact that you have not provided any services to the district for over eighteen (18) months, your objection is specious, a breach of your fiduciary duties and a showing of conscious disregard of your obligations to the board,” the board said in the letter. “Given this refusal, we continue to believe that you withheld material information during the course of the negotiations leading up the college district’s offering the chancellor emeritus position to you. Had the college district been aware of the information you withheld, it would not have entered into the 2019 agreement.”

Galatolo did not respond to an email request for comment.

"As a community college district, our mission is to ensure that all students have access to affordable higher education opportunities," said Lisa Petrides, a trustee elected in November 2020. "As a trustee, we must be committed to transparency and accountability in all aspects of our operations, and to remain fiscally and ethically responsible to those we serve."

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Large institutions reporting fewer COVID-19 infections now than fall

Last August, as students were returning to campuses across the country, the United States was between two waves of COVID-19. Case counts across the country were fairly low, at least in comparison to where we’ve found ourselves now.

Still, a number of large, mostly public, universities went through what seemed to some to be disaster situations. With thousands of students infected, some universities sent students home to family. Others soldiered on as cases rose -- over the loud protests of campus instructors.

This semester, those institutions that put up the highest numbers for student case counts appear to be doing better. They have fewer cases and are, on the whole, performing more testing. While some of the numbers may still be worrisome, representing hundreds of students infected, they are often a far cry from the record-breaking tallies reported in the fall.

The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, for example, had 2,184 student cases 22 days into the fall semester. This term, the university has reported only 591.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has similarly seen fewer cases than last semester. Thirteen days into its semester, the university has cataloged 366 student cases. Last semester at the same time it reported 1,321.

In many cases universities have increased testing. UW Madison, for example, is testing students twice weekly this semester, a model pioneered by others like Colby College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last year. Testing has gotten cheaper and easier for universities to perform, and some institutions have even brought the process in-house to their own labs.

Some of the difference this year could also be due to simple things that come with the new semester. Auburn University, now three weeks into its semester, is similarly doing better. Currently with 188 cases, the university last year saw 794 at this same time.

Auburn controversially did not require re-entry testing this semester, despite doing so in the fall. But the administration did launch a sentinel testing program to test about 10 percent of the student body per week.

But officials at Auburn said that despite the nationwide rise in cases, they expected different dynamics to be at play now compared to the fall. While incoming freshmen are often eager to find friends and maybe participate in rush events, by the spring, many of their social lives have settled down.

One other potential factor is also the conferred immunity from a COVID-19 infection. There is still no consensus on how long a person is immune to COVID-19 after having recovered from an infection, although some studies have suggested one can remain immune for several months. College campuses that saw large numbers of students -- and in some cases, their least careful students -- infected could have some barrier against large spikes. Some colleges, such as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, have said that students who caught the virus in the fall are exempt from re-entry testing.

“Previously positive students definitely have some protection,” said Richard Friend, dean of Alabama’s College of Community Health Sciences and a member of the university’s health and safety task force. “I think that has helped.” Alabama also ramped up sentinel testing and geographic testing, testing all students in an area where others have been positive.

At some colleges, the share of students who were previously infected is significant. A peer-reviewed study released last month suggested that universities such as Brigham Young University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Notre Dame had seen over 10 percent of their students infected. At Clemson University, 22 percent of students were infected by the year’s end. The study also suggested that the first two weeks of the semester are critical for an institution, with many colleges seeing infection peaks within that time frame.

Some universities have pointed to increased compliance from students.

Illinois State University saw 1,299 student infections 25 days into its fall semester. But this semester, in the same time frame, the university has only reported 183 cases. Officials there have said off-campus gatherings contributed to the early spike last fall.

“In the wake of one such gathering, some students faced disciplinary action under the university's code of student conduct. The Town of Normal also passed an ordinance regulating the size of gatherings in the areas around the campus,” a spokesperson for the university said via email. “These factors, along with further communication from the university resulted in better compliance with health and safety guidelines -- and a general decrease in the number of positive cases -- during the remainder of the fall semester. That general trend continues this semester.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill garnered significant news coverage last August when it sent students home nine days into the semester. Fifteen days into its fall term, the university had seen 763 student cases. This year, a similar distance into the semester, only 253 students had tested positive.

“Our Carolina Together testing program is certainly making a difference,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor at Chapel Hill. “By the end of this week, we will have conducted close to 40,000 tests.” Last semester the university had performed under 2,000. Health and safety violations and citations are also down this semester, Guskiewicz said.

Of course, not everywhere is doing better than before. Some colleges that kept case counts low in the fall have faced challenges in the new term.

Duke University, for example, has seen 199 student cases since Jan. 3. Its total for the entire fall term was only 152. Some of those cases can be traced to infections students brought with them from home. At the start of last semester, Duke’s re-entry testing caught 26 students with positive cases, officials said. This semester, that number was 56.

“For the spring semester, we expected that more students would be positive on arrival due to the prevalence in the community, and nationally, which is much greater today than it was in the fall,” a spokesperson for the university said via email.

But despite the increase, Duke’s case count is still lower than what some other institutions are reporting. “Relative to the size of our total university community of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, the incidence of COVID-19 is a fraction the general population, though the increase over the past months is concerning,” the spokesperson said.

Duke is testing students twice weekly and has offered only single-occupancy dorms.

Similarly, Union College, a small liberal arts college in New York, has seen about 92 cases of COVID-19. That is nearly four times its total for the fall.

“Do not expect that the actions you took in the fall will have the same effects this winter,” President David Harris advised other college presidents in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed. “Do not bring students back to campus unless you are prepared to have more positive cases -- perhaps significantly more.”

Union is seeing more cases despite ramping up testing to twice per week and has secured more rooms for quarantine and isolation.

“Whenever students are coming to the campus for the first time, especially when they’re coming from areas of the country where there’s a high amount of COVID incidence, when they come to campus they will bring COVID with them,” said Chris Marsicano, director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. “I don’t know that it is cause for alarm as long as institutions respond in kind” by limiting student mobility and moving some aspects of campus life online, he said.

Institutional leaders report that they have learned from their peers and their communities about how to best keep cases low.

“We are an institution of higher learning,” Guskiewicz, of Chapel Hill, said. “And we need to be willing at every level to learn and improve.”

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New variant leads to stay-at-home order at U of Michigan

University of Michigan students are now under a stay-at-home order from the college administration after a recommendation from its county health department due to a cluster of cases of one of the new COVID-19 variants, called B.1.1.7.

The new variant, first observed in Britain, has now been reported in 32 states and 467 people. Experts have suggested that B.1.1.7 transmits more efficiently and rapidly than previously observed types of the novel coronavirus. British experts have also suggested that the variant may be more deadly.

As of Jan. 27, 14 people at Michigan have been infected with the B.1.1.7 variant.

In the United States, B.1.1.7 has not caused a major revision of health protocols. American colleges on the whole are still planning to bring back more students than they did last semester and to hold more in-person classes.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that B.1.1.7 could be the dominant strain causing U.S. cases by March. The University of Michigan and its approach to the cluster may be a bellwether of things to come for American institutions.

The goal behind Michigan’s stay-at-home order is not so much to fully contain the variant as it is to limit spread and buy the university and county time, said Rick Fitzgerald, spokesperson for Michigan.

“It was designed to give us time to do some of the additional testing to give us a clearer picture of that variant in our community,” he said. The university is currently doing weekly testing, then taking every positive test and sequencing it to learn its strain.

The process takes additional time for both the university and the Washtenaw County Health Department. While one of the cases at Michigan was connected to travel to Britain, said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokesperson for the health department, not all variant cases have been connected to that individual.

“How closely all those cases are connected or not connected is what we're trying to figure out,” she said.

The department’s first level of investigation is close contacts -- people who have spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of someone who is infected -- but the department is now looking at “casual contacts,” who may have had more incidental contact with an infected person, trying to find undetected spread. While the university and county work to find what’s already in the community, they need to limit further spread.

Michigan’s stay-at-home order isn’t a full quarantine. Students are allowed out for food, exercise, work and -- notably -- in-person classes.

The university didn’t observe any transmission from in-person classes in the fall, because of proper protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing, Fitzgerald said, so keeping classes face-to-face should be safe.

The university has already seriously limited the number of in-person classes it is holding, he said. About 80 to 90 percent of courses are online this semester, and the campus is housing only about 2,600 students on campus (down from its usual 10,000). Classes currently being offered in person are ones university administrators and faculty felt were essential, Fitzgerald said, such as those related to licensing requirements.

For now, the university and county are focused on curtailing social gatherings between students who don't live together, which is what they see as the main source of spread. The stay-at-home order is set to last until Feb. 7, at which point it may be extended.

"More stringent actions may be necessary if this outbreak continues to grow and additional variant clusters are identified," the health department said in a release.

After the first cases were discovered in Michigan’s athletics department, the university paused all athletic activity Jan. 23 and told athletes to enter quarantine.

Currently the Washtenaw County health department has seen no other B.1.1.7 variant cases at other colleges in the area, Ringler-Cerniglia said. Michigan State University is also currently under a stay-at-home order, but officials there have said there have been no cases of the B.1.1.7 observed.

According to the CDC, states with most cases of the B.1.1.7 variant include California, Florida and New York. Broward and Miami-Dade Counties in Florida, home to Fort Lauderdale and Miami respectively, have been the sites of most cases in that state. Universities in those areas have not publicized any variant cases.

“We're monitoring the situation, but have not made any changes in our preventive measures,” said a spokesperson for Florida International University via email.

Whether more cases will crop up at American colleges and universities remains to be seen. Typical COVID-19 tests do not assess what strain a person might be infected with, and health departments can only find variants when they are looking for them. While the CDC has ramped up its National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance program to process 750 samples per week, the United States currently ranks 43rd worldwide in sequencing to check for genetic changes in the virus.

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Despite appearances, many students worry about COVID-19

Since the first days students returned to campuses in August, they’ve been getting in trouble. The University of Connecticut, days into the semester, sent several students home for partying during a mandatory quarantine. Over the course of the fall term, Ohio State University handed out more than 1,500 suspensions to students for breaking COVID-19 guidelines.

It would seem easy to say that students don’t care about COVID-19 when they’re holding pool parties and rush events. But recent data suggest that, on the whole, students are worried.

In a recent survey of over 1,000 college students nationwide, conducted by the think tanks Third Way and New America, COVID-19 ranked as a top concern. More students said they were concerned about catching and spreading COVID-19 than said they were concerned about their own mental health, paying bills or getting a job after graduation.

“College students in particular have gotten a really bad rap for potentially not caring about coronavirus or social distancing or some of these guidelines,” said Tamara Hiler, director of education at Third Way. “It’s clear from our data that that’s not the case. Students are worried about their own safety and their own health, particularly the health of their families.”

All in all, 82 percent of students in the study said they were worried about catching COVID-19 and spreading it to others. About 86 percent said they were afraid of friends and family catching the disease. Both those numbers went up for Black students, Latinx students and students who were caring for a child or relative.

Of course there are the partiers, the rule breakers, the blasé. But in interviews students say that college campuses, like every other place in the country, are diverse. And while some students are out every night, others are locked in their rooms, eating meals alone.

At Luther College, for instance, roughly 40 percent of the student body signed a petition asking the college to keep the final two weeks of the second quarter, starting Jan. 11, online. With the holidays ending, many were concerned about the impact that traveling and New Year’s Eve parties would have on the Iowa campus.

“A lot of students were very alarmed by the fact that COVID cases are rising nationwide and there was a lot of pushback from students,” said Madeline Lomprey, student body president at Luther who helped circulate the petition. “Students didn’t feel safe.”

Lomprey knows a few people who have had long-term symptoms of COVID-19. That worries her. And with new, more transmissible variants now present in the U.S., she doesn’t really understand why the college wasn’t interested in asking students to quarantine or letting students study from home if they wanted to for those two weeks.

“A lot of us are just tired of asking for protections and not receiving them,” she said. Luther has expanded testing, but it didn't give in to the petition's core demand of two weeks of online classes. “They can’t expect students to feel comfortable if they haven’t given us a safety blanket to feel safe.”

And unlike professors, who are able to petition to teach their classes online, students don’t have many options.

“Students just aren’t feeling autonomy over their bodies and over decisions for their health right now,” Lomprey said.

Jimmy Zhang, a senior and resident assistant at Emory University, said he feels some of that lack of autonomy.

“The colleges are having an experiment, and we’re all the guinea pigs,” he said.

Getting COVID-19 on campus could mean bringing it home to his grandma or his dad, who is immunocompromised, Zhang said.

Some of his residents are also concerned, one of them enough that she asked to move rooms to get away from a suitemate she didn’t think was being careful. Some of his residents have moved home, although new ones have replaced them.

“There’s way more people on campus now,” he said. “Everyone is scared of COVID, but at the same time, everyone wants to see each other.”

At Emory, RAs like Zhang are responsible for enforcing COVID-19 protocols, such as mask wearing, in their dorms. Across campuses, resident assistants have been among the constituencies demanding more protection. At the University of Michigan, for example, RAs went on strike in the fall, in part because of concerns around the virus, asking for more personal protective equipment and better policy enforcement.

At Arizona State University, many students in residence halls are worried about the virus, said Wyatt Myskow, a sophomore at the university. Myskow has covered dorm living for The State Press, ASU’s student newspaper. Some students have told him they’ve encountered COVID-positive people in elevators or heard rumors swirling through the dorms. One student had an atrial fibrillation heart attack after being infected by COVID-19.

“Every student who lives in the dorms is indeed concerned about COVID,” he said.

All in all, the university granted 1,660 students the ability to break their housing contracts and move out this academic year, Myskow said, citing numbers given to The State Press by the university. Most of those, he said, are students who aren’t getting the experience they thought they were in for.

“The reality of living on campus wasn’t what some students expected,” he said. “The on-campus experience isn’t that different from living at home, because you’re just taking classes remotely and you’re not meeting new people, whether you’re living in the dorms or you’re at your parents’ house.”

College campuses have in many cases seen extreme incidence of COVID-19. A peer-reviewed study released last month found that several colleges had peak incidences high above the national rates during the United States’ first and second waves. At some colleges, incredible numbers of students have become infected. By the time Clemson University reached 16 percent of its student body infected, in October, Rebecca West, editor in chief of the student newspaper The Tiger News, said friends disappearing to quarantine had become routine.

“The first couple people I was shocked, but at this point,” she said at the time, “it's a bit of a routine.”

The Third Way and New America study also found that many students who are currently learning online would like to stay that way into the next academic year. Online learning certainly has drawbacks. It can cost money in technology and internet payments for a student. But over all, 76 percent of students surveyed said they would like to study in an online or hybrid format in the next academic year.

Paola Cruz, a third-year student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, which caters to nontraditional and returning students, said she is in that boat. Before the pandemic, she commuted to Upper Manhattan from Queens, an hour-and-a-half trek each way at minimum that involved a bus and up to three separate train lines.

“The physical and mental toll that [commuting] had on me was a problem and really affected my academic standing,” she said. “Now I have more time in my day.” Last term she earned her best grade point average in her five semesters at Columbia.

Over all, students are not all that different from other people in the rest of the country, Myskow said.

“It’s the same as it is everywhere. There’s groups of people who take it very seriously and there’s groups of people who don’t take it as seriously,” he said. “I don’t think that’s reflective of ASU -- I think that’s reflective of America as a country as a whole.”

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With Pell Grants restored to people in prison, eyes turn to assuring quality

In 1994, Congress adopted a bill authored by then-Senator Joe Biden that banned people in prison from having access to federal Pell Grants. Last month, after 26 years, that ban was finally lifted.

Advocates and practitioners agree, the change is monumental for those in prison. They say much of the credit for the victory goes to formerly incarcerated people -- and their organizations, such as the Unlock Higher Ed coalition -- who have demonstrated the value of an education and human potential for change.

“I know the benefits of education for those coming out of prison,” said Tracy Andrus, a professor of criminal justice at Wiley College in Texas who was incarcerated in the 1990s. Andrus is also the director of the Lee P. Brown Criminal Justice Institute at Wiley and was the first African American person to earn a Ph.D. in juvenile justice. “I was not fortunate enough to have Second Chance Pell.”

But the effort to expand higher education in prison isn’t over. And the end of the ban has brought on new concerns about low-quality programs, implementation and equity.

Restoration and What Comes After

Before 1994, there were more than 300 postsecondary education programs in American prisons. After the ban, that number dwindled to about a dozen.

Supporters of the ban have argued that people with criminal records shouldn’t have access to federal assistance while people with no convictions go into debt to afford an education. But advocates for higher education in prison have successfully argued that, beyond simple human rights, the practice has its benefits. A 2013 study from the RAND Corporation estimated that prisoners who enrolled in an education program were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not. Other research has suggested higher education programs also help reduce prison violence and make the facilities safer.

“With 95 percent of people eventually leaving prison and returning to our communities, it’s important that we have these opportunities in place for people to build their skills and knowledge while they’re on the inside,” said Margaret diZerega, director of the Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.

The Vera Institute, a policy and research organization focused on the criminal justice system, has estimated that nearly half a million inmates could be eligible for Pell Grants with the ban lifted.

“We know there’s high demand from incarcerated people for these opportunities, and there’s a ton of interest from corrections and colleges,” diZerega said. “It’s really exciting to think about all of the lives that are going to be benefited when more people in prison have access to postsecondary education.”

The current landscape for funding higher education in prison is diverse. Some programs, like the one Andrus directs at Wiley College, are run with access to Pell through a pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, first launched under the Obama administration. Others charge the students tuition, receive state funding, or court private philanthropy to pay for their programs. Others still cover the cost internally.

Lifting the ban was a top priority for advocates of higher education in prison. With their goal achieved, the field is now turning its focus to ensuring quality in the academic programs approved for federal dollars. There is some thought that students could be exploited by predatory institutions that would use up students' lifetime Pell eligibility without providing a quality education in return.

“How do we prevent against any behaviors that might take advantage of students and might create a situation where the reinstatement of Pell is of greater benefit to colleges and universities than it is to students?” said Mary Gould, director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. “The thing you don’t want is universities that profit because now there is a whole new set of students with money attached to them, in a moment where colleges and universities are struggling financially.”

While there were low-quality programs in the 1990s, before the ban, there are more now, said Erin Corbett, founder and CEO of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, a postsecondary prison program in Connecticut. “There are more institutions that can be looking at incarcerated students simply as an additional revenue stream and not really caring about providing educational opportunity.”

The legislation already has a few guardrails to protect students against predatory programs. Institutions must be approved to operate in a facility by the state or Bureau of Prisons, which should consider factors such as the job placement, earnings and recidivism rates of those who have continued their education post release. Institutions cannot have been the subject of any suspension or discipline from an accrediting body in the past five years, and credits must transfer over to at least one institution in the state (or, in the case of federal prisons, the state where most inmates are going to live after they’re released). Some of the major targets for these guardrails are for-profit institutions.

But efforts could go further, advocates and practitioners say.

Corbett said one of the first steps is to operationalize quality and develop metrics to evaluate programs. Last year, the Institute for Higher Education Policy made a first attempt at such a project with the development of key performance indicators to evaluate higher education in prison programs.

“The key performance indicators were definitely the first step,” said Corbett, who worked on the project and is involved in other efforts to define quality. “But it is not the end of the conversation.”

Much attention has been paid to Ashland University’s prison education program, especially after an article from the Marshall Project, a news outlet that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, cast doubt on its model of online-only education. The tablet-based program is among the largest serving prisoners in the United States, but critics say it fails its students in its design and doesn't prepare them for re-entry into society.

“Right now there’s no metric [for quality],” said Satra Taylor, manager of higher education justice initiatives at the Education Trust, “which is why this is such a complicated conversation.”

But efforts at defining quality should come from practitioners in the field, Corbett and Taylor said, not people new to the work.

Other steps to ensure quality in the future could include specific accreditation for college prison programs, said Andrus.

“We want to make sure that we have very rigorous curriculums," he said. "The same program that we offer at our colleges and universities should be the identical program that we offer to our inmates in prison." 

Colleges could be asked to provide a certain level of student support services, or access to technology for students, said Gould.

Other measures might look at equity in the prison environment. Institutions operating in prison could be asked to ensure that the makeup of their incarcerated student body matches the demographics of the prison at large. A 2019 study from New America suggested that while Black and Hispanic incarcerated students enroll in college programs as often as their white peers, they complete at lower rates. With Black men in particular overrepresented in the criminal justice system, many see postsecondary prison programs as a racial justice issue.

Corbett said she would like to see more historically Black colleges and universities offer programs in prisons.

“HBCUs are uniquely poised to lead in this work because of their institutional histories” with students in prison, especially during the civil rights era, she said. “The research already demonstrates that when students can see teachers and professors that look like them, their outcomes tend to be better.”

Colleges and universities could also offer more STEM degrees, she said. State and local governments could remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting professional licenses. They could enact “ban the box” legislation that prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history, Taylor said. They could also create new positions and hire counselors to help inmates navigate the financial aid system.

The stakes for ensuring quality and access are high. While prison education programs are often called a “second chance,” some advocates say most prison inmates never had a first chance at a quality education.

“‘Better than nothing’ is a prevailing philosophy across not just higher education in prison but likely many services provided in prison,” Gould said. “There needs to be a recognition that most people who are in prison have in one way or another in their life been intentionally excluded, marginalized, underserved or provided inadequate access to education.”

With that in mind, practitioners and policy makers should be wary of simply treating postsecondary education as a corrective “dose” that can prevent recidivism, she said. That mind-set leads to barriers in access such as limiting education only to those who are guaranteed to be released from prison.

“In far too many situations, education is seen as part of the ‘rehabilitation process.’ It's not education with the idea that everyone deserves access to quality education, but that education can do something 'corrective,' and that is incredibly problematic,” Gould said. “Recidivism is not an educational outcome.”

Much of the future for higher education in prison has yet to be decided. Though legislation was passed and signed, the ban hasn’t yet fully been lifted. The Department of Education is responsible for doing so before July 1, 2023, but advocates have said they are pushing for it to happen sooner.

“The restoration of Pell is just a piece of what should be a broader plan to remove barriers to access for students impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Taylor. “There is still work to be done.”

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Auburn not testing students upon arrival, despite doing so in fall

Last semester Auburn University asked students to get tested for COVID-19 before or upon arrival to campus. The public university in Alabama sent out home testing kits for students, offered on-campus sites and allowed students to demonstrate results they got elsewhere.

This semester, the university chose not to repeat that practice.

The move was criticized by some observers and faculty members. But university officials say there are good reasons to not do it again.

For one, it didn’t work.

“I hate to say it, but it clearly did not prevent a spike at the start of the fall,” said Dr. Fred Kam, clinical medical director at Auburn. The university struggled, like others in the state, Kam said, to get 90 to 100 percent compliance with the protocol. And in the first few weeks of the term, the university saw more than 1,300 cases. “It clearly did not stop a spike at University of Alabama, or Auburn, or some other schools. It still happened,” he said.

The situation at Auburn illustrates some of the ambiguity facing colleges and universities this term. With such a new virus, public health protocols are still being developed, tested and perfected. The public health and medical experts advising colleges are experienced professionals. But with research still being done, many institutions and their experts have had to rely on anecdotal evidence from their peers and others even outside higher education to make decisions about how to contain the disease on campus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, do not specifically recommend that institutions test students upon or before arrival. Neither does the American College Health Association.

Both bodies, however, have acknowledged that the practice may have some value for colleges and universities. When re-entry testing is paired with immediate isolation or measures that prevent COVID-positive students from coming to campus, it can prevent spread early on in the semester. Research has demonstrated that many universities see COVID-19 peaks within the first two weeks of the term as students return from across a state or region.

Many institutions have used entry testing as part of a suite of measures designed to keep infections low. The University of Vermont, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington State University, for example, are all planning to use the measure this spring. A recent ACHA survey of members suggested about 37 percent of respondents conducted upon-arrival testing in the fall, and 22 percent conducted prearrival testing. Officials from the organization have said it’s something colleges and universities should consider.

Other measures such as twice-weekly testing of the entire student body -- which ACHA has recommended and a number of colleges are planning for the spring -- can prevent transmission but also make specific re-entry testing less imperative. Auburn has indeed expanded a sentinel testing program for the spring, though not to the frequency that ACHA has recommended. The program selects a random sample of students and employees weekly to participate, though taking the test after being selected is optional, not mandatory. Test turnaround has been improved from two to three days in the fall to less than 24 hours this term.

But with re-entry testing and other measures, colleges and universities are also weighing the potential benefits against the potential costs. Kam said that Auburn’s fall re-entry testing was paid for with CARES Act money.

“If we had spring re-entry testing, more than likely that would have had to be covered by each individual student,” Kam said.

Asking 20,000 undergraduates to get tested would also put a strain on state resources, he said.

“The use of the resources for relatively healthy asymptomatic people versus people who have been exposed or people who are having symptoms,” he said, “you are putting pressure on those testing centers for something that is optional.”

Kam acknowledged that more testing is likely not useless and more testing from the start of the pandemic would have been helpful. But the dynamics at Auburn have changed since last semester, he said, making re-entry testing less imperative. The fall semester, when students typically arrive at campus for the first time, is characterized by a flurry of socializing and events. Students want to make friends, get involved in Greek life and hang out at pools. In the spring, students have already gotten to know people in their residences and classes.

The cold weather, while it may push people inside, where the risk of transmission is greater, also broadly discourages socializing, Kam said.

Not everyone is happy with Auburn’s decision. One senior faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had serious concerns about doing away with the re-entry testing. His perspective, contrary to Kam’s, is that re-entry testing worked well in the fall. About 500 infected students were caught by the measure.

“Almost immediately as we started doing the total number of counts and also the surveillance testing, the numbers got quite low quite quickly. Less than 100 per week,” he said. “There was certainly not rampant COVID on campus, and that’s in spite of our students going out to bars unmasked.”

The COVID-19 situation in Alabama and across the country is also currently much worse than it was late last summer, which could potentially result in more students coming to campus infected than last term, he said.

“If we want to create a bubble where we have all the people that we’re concerned about -- and that would be faculty, staff and students -- within a self-contained system and we’re trying to control the infection within that system, it seems to me a whole lot smarter to start out with less infection,” the professor said. “If we let everyone in the bubble who’s infected, we contaminate the bubble.” Controlling that early infection is possible without re-entry testing, but more difficult.

On the subject of the sentinel testing expansion, the professor, who works in a medicine-related field, said that while sentinel testing is helpful, it is more useful to see trends, rather than find cases to trace and isolate. Re-entry testing and mass testing of a campus population are measures that can do the latter.

Kam said that he still believes the campus will face “hiccups” in its coronavirus situation this term. More classes will be face-to-face this semester, and there will be more students on campus. “It’s going to be a bit more dysfunctional,” he said.

But on the subject of re-entry testing, Kam emphasized that classes at Auburn began Jan. 11. If university officials were likely to see a spike, he said, they would have seen it already.

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