Win McNamee/Pool / The New York Times

Dr. Anthony Fauci M.D. '66 testified at the senate hearing remotely, after entering self isolation following possible exposure to COVID-19.

May 14, 2020

Senate Briefing Leaves Questions Unanswered, Still Unclear if College Campuses Can Reopen in the Fall

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As students wrap up their final days of classes online and Tompkins County begins its phased reopening on Friday, students are still wondering: Will campus be open for the fall semester?

A May 12 Senate hearing on COVID-19 attempted to answer this question for the over 50,000 college campuses and 100,000 schools in the U.S. that were forced to close in March. While top officials are confident that testing capacity will be sufficient to make up for the lack of effective therapeutics, colleges are still proceeding with caution.

On the same day of the hearing the largest public college system in the country, California State University, announced that its campuses would maintain online classes for the remainder of the year.

A day later, on May 13, Harvard Medical School also made the decision to utilize online learning for incoming medical, dental, and graduate students. Currently, returning graduate students are expected to be able to return to campus to complete their clinical and research educational components with the hope that all students will be able to report to campus in 2021.

The hearing  intended to connect Senate members with top health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci M.D. ‘66, Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Brett Giroir, to inform policies regarding reopening. The topic of reopening schools and college campuses was repeatedly a topic of conversation, as it was the focus of  Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) questioning.

“Schools, from early to childhood to college, need to know how to keep their students, their staff and their educators safe. When should they wear masks, how do you run a school cafeteria or a school bus,” Murray said.

There will be no vaccine or treatment that could help schools reopen come August, Fauci said at the hearing. The closest treatment that could give those wanting to return to campus some hope is the convalescent serum, which contains antibodies from the blood of those that have recovered. Still, the focus should not be how to treat an entire campus, but rather how to make sure those on campus feel safe Fauci added.

“Even at the top speed we are going we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term. What they really want is to know if they are safe,” Fauci said. “We’re really not talking about necessarily treating a student who gets ill, but how the student will feel safe in going back to school.”

Due to this lack of treatments, campuses must employ widespread testing, which will vary based on the geographic location of the campus. Giroir, the Assistant Secretary of Health and U.S.’s “testing czar,” said that by August the U.S. will have the capacity to run 25 to 30 million tests a month.

“It is certainly possible to test all of the students or it is much more likely that there would be a surveillance strategy done where you may test some of the students at different times to give an assurance that there’s no circulation,” Giroir said.

Both Giroir and Fauci agreed that campus reopenings would look different based on the campus’ location.

“Going back to school would be more in the realm of knowing the landscape of infection with regard to testing,” said Fauci. “It would depend on the dynamics of the outbreak in the region where the school is.”

Southern Tier is one of three regions in New York State that have met all the criteria to begin reopening on Friday. While this is promising, Cornell has students from across the globe which could complicate reopening strategies. As of Fall 2019, 1533 undergraduates were residents of New York City, the global epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

While there is still uncertainty regarding the dynamics of the pandemic come the fall, the University is investigating how various aspects of campus life will resume. On April 22, President Martha E. Pollack announced the establishment of four planning committees each tasked with evaluating the path to reopening aspects of campus activity, including teaching reactivation options, preparation for online teaching, research and operations reactivation, and administrative function.

The committee on research and operations reactivation is expected to present their recommendations on May 15, while the other three committees are expected to make recommendations between June 15 and June 30.