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Massachusetts College Presidents Submit Reopening Framework

The Massachusetts Higher Education Working Group, a group of 14 college presidents representing higher education in Massachusetts, submitted a “framework for reopening colleges and universities” to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board. The document offers specific details for how colleges and universities can reopen based on Baker’s four-phase plan for reopening Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is currently in Phase 1 of Baker’s plan, during which colleges and universities may begin repopulating research laboratories and health-related services as well as begin functions necessary to prepare for reopening. In Phases 2 and 3, colleges and universities will devise plans for offering courses in the future in compliance with health guidelines.

Boston College recently announced that it plans to reopen as scheduled in the fall, and University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., said in an email to the BC community that the University has developed testing and isolation procedures for COVID-19, though he noted that more needs to be done for testing, contact tracing, and treatment.

Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

The framework details how colleges and universities will slowly resume programming and begin to repopulate campuses in Phases 2 and 3. In Phase 2, certain programs may resume limited activity, and schools may reopen facilities necessary for these programs, such as dining halls. Phase 3 is designed to accommodate larger populations on campus, at which point schools will engage in physical distancing, sanitization, and de-densifying policies.

The framework also listed ways Massachusetts can support higher education during the pandemic, including providing assistance with procurement of testing, personal protective equipment, and cleaning supplies, as well as assistance with implementation of contact tracing. The report said Massachusetts should also require health insurers to cover testing costs not covered by the federal government, either through legislation or an executive order by Baker.

The report also called for Massachusetts to provide “safe harbor from liability” for institutions that prepare comprehensive reopening plans consistent with guidance from the Commonwealth, which would partially or fully limit liability for schools that reopen following Massachusetts policy.

The report also included results from a survey of Massachusetts college presidents, reporting that more than 90 percent of college presidents are very highly confident in their ability to educate their communities about the policies, enact additional protection for at-risk groups, sanitize common spaces, and ensure safe workspaces. More than 80 percent of presidents additionally reported high confidence in their ability to provide isolation and quarantine space, de-densify classrooms, and “de-triple” bedrooms.

College presidents were much less confident in their ability to conduct contact tracing. Fifty-nine percent reported confidence in their ability to implement testing protocols to screen all students, faculty, and staff returning to campus.

The framework for Phase 1 focuses on achieving high confidence in the safety of repopulating research laboratories and clinical education and services through “strict control” of population density and personal protective equipment compliance. The framework for Phase 1 also proposes returning small numbers of staff to on-site work for campus operations that cannot be done remotely, instituting phased move out for student belongings remaining from the Spring 2020 semester, and paying special attention to at-risk faculty and staff during repopulation.

Phase 2 focuses on the relaunching and piloting of limited on-campus student programming, which could include opening campus programs typically held during the summer, programs for students who need to complete on-site degree or credential requirements, and facilities necessary for participation such as dining and residence halls.

The “key enablers” for moving into Phase 3—careful repopulation of residence halls, dining halls, and classrooms—are the meeting of “applicable public health criteria”; protocols for testing, tracing, and isolation; adequate testing, personal protective equipment, and cleaning supplies; a comprehensive reopening plan; and confidence of families, faculty, and staff that campus will be safe.

Under the Phase 3 proposal, residence hall protocols will vary based on site-specific conditions. Schools will implement measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing outside of bedrooms, as well as risk management for shared bedrooms. Multiple strategies are under consideration, including organizing students into “family-like households,” clustering students with shared classes to minimize contact, and lowering the occupancy limit where possible.

The framework proposes reorganizing classrooms to accommodate physical distancing through steps such as moving small classes to larger spaces and mixing in-person and remote learning. Dining halls will follow de-densifying guidance, adjust dining spaces, and serve meals to go.

The key enablers for Phase 4, a resumption of normal activity, are public confidence that the crisis is over, wide availability of vaccine and medical treatment, and herd immunity.

Featured Image by Maddy Romance / Heights Editor

June 1, 2020

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