Safe on campus: A framework for reopening colleges and universities

DEPARTMENT(S): 
May 27, 2020

To: Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board
From: Massachusetts Higher Ed Working Group
Date: May 27, 2020
RE: Framework for Reopening Colleges and Universities

The Higher Education Working Group is pleased to present our framework for reopening Massachusetts colleges and universities. Under the leadership of Reopening Advisory Board member and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) President Laurie Leshin, this group comprises 14 leaders from public and private colleges and universities across the Commonwealth. The Higher Education Working Group was formed to represent Massachusetts’ 106 diverse institutions of higher education and their 500,000 students and 130,000 employees.

The framework presents a phased approach that aligns with the four phases of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan, and was developed in accordance with these guiding principles:

  • Ensuring that we protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff and people in the communities that surround our campuses
  • Enabling our students to make meaningful progress towards their educational goals
  • Advancing the research and innovation that is so critical to our state’s economy and to fighting COVID-19.

Through a Readiness to Reopen Survey of Presidents conducted in early May, a total of 86 campus leaders contributed information about pandemic-related challenges facing their institutions, and this insight helped us to shape an informed vision of what will be needed to repopulate college and university campuses.

The diversity of colleges and universities in Massachusetts means that there is no “One Size Fits All” approach. However, as evidenced by responses to the Readiness to Reopen Survey of Presidents, there are also many commonalities. For instance, the vast majority of institutions are confident that they will communicate their plans for the fall by around July 1, and will need six weeks or less to ramp up for reopening in the fall.

Because every campus has its own distinct needs and challenges, the Higher Education Working Group calls upon each institution to use this framework in developing institution-specific plans for safely resuming activities in each phase:

Phase One The repopulation of research laboratories and medical, dental, veterinary and allied health clinical and educational services begins. Many higher education leaders have high confidence that these activities can resume safely because the people working in these environments have expertise using personal protective equipment (PPE) in controlled environments. Small numbers of staff would also return to on-site work, as needed, to support ramp-up of operations activities that cannot be supported remotely. Such repopulation of staff would take place in alignment with the safety protocols put in place by the Commonwealth.
Phase Two Limited on-campus student programming resumes on a small scale, with sufficient supplies of tests and PPE, and only with specific plans for social distancing and mask-wearing.
Phase Three Careful, larger-scale repopulation of campuses begins, possibly in conjunction with the start of the new academic year. However, given that students will be gathering in classrooms, residence halls, dining halls, and other campus locations, this phase moving forward is dependent upon continued progress on health metrics in Massachusetts, and would only happen if tests and PPE are available in sufficient supplies to meet safety protocols. Planning must include campus-specific protocols for critical actions such as symptom monitoring, social distancing, use of masks, testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine spacing.
Phase Four Ultimately, normal operations resume after a vaccine is developed or herd immunity is achieved.

In addition to outlining the phases of reopening, this framework also emphasizes the importance of an ongoing partnership between the Commonwealth and higher education institutions, most notably as planning continues in the coming weeks and months. The Working Group developed the following recommendations for consideration by the Commonwealth:

  1. The Governor should call on each college and university to develop reopening plans for their own campuses. At a minimum, these plans should include:
    • A plan for a phased repopulation of the campus.
    • A plan for monitoring health conditions to ensure detection of infection.
    • A plan for containment to prevent the spread of the disease if detected.
    • A plan for scaling back operations if necessary.
  2. The Commonwealth should partner with colleges and universities to provide assistance with procurement of testing, PPE, and cleaning supplies, and with technical assistance for the implementation of contact tracing programs.
  3. Through legislation or Executive Order, the Commonwealth should continue to require MA health insurers to cover testing costs that are not paid by the federal government.
  4. The Commonwealth should continue to coordinate with licensing and regulatory agencies to enable professional licensure and certification in accordance with public health guidance.
  5. The Commonwealth should provide a safe harbor from liability for those institutions that prepare comprehensive reopening plans consistent with State guidance.

The Higher Education Working Group recognizes that best practice protocols concerning testing, contact tracing, and symptom monitoring in our campus communities are under development. Because the science and technology are evolving rapidly, our plans must be flexible to accommodate new knowledge and capabilities as they become available. To consider these issues, we have formed a special sub-group to provide advice to institutions across the Commonwealth, work which will continue into the coming academic year.

While each campus will need to make its own decisions concerning operations in the coming academic year based on their own planning and needs, we hope this framework provides guidance in their work to repopulate their campuses at the appropriate time. We look forward to continued close collaboration among our institutions, and between higher education and the Commonwealth as we all work to serve our students and communities.

Laurie Leshin, President, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, member of the Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board

Robert Brown, President, Boston University
Nicholas Covino, President, William James College
Javier Cevallos, President, Framingham State University
Mary-Beth Cooper, President, Springfield College
Helen Drinan, President, Simmons University
Patricia Gentile, President, North Shore Community College
Deborah Jackson, President, Cambridge College
Paula Johnson, President, Wellesley College
Richard Lapidus, President, Fitchburg State University
Marty Meehan, President, University of Massachusetts
Anthony Monaco, President, Tufts University
Paula Rooney, President, Dean College
Yves Salomon-Fernandez, President, Greenfield Community College

cc: Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser