How is American higher education faring this semester, as COVID-19 continues to attack the world? National Public Radio has a very critical report which should provoke some rethinking, at least.
For context, colleges and universities are currently using a wide range of strategies to conduct operations now, from offering classes entirely online to holding the full range of campus life entirely in-person to many choices in between. Here’s one description from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, updated almost a week ago:
How are those primarily in person, hybrid, and fully in person schools doing how?
According to NPR, the majority of campuses have fallen down on testing.
more than 2 out of 3 colleges with in-person classes either have no clear testing plan or are testing only students who are at risk — mostly when they feel sick or have had contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
This is especially a problem with larger institutions:
Of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are conducting mass screening or random “surveillance” testing of students. Only 6% are routinely testing all of their students. Most, instead, are relying on only diagnostic testing of symptomatic students, which many experts say comes too late to control outbreaks and understates the true number of cases.
And it’s also a problem for campuses located in outbreak zones, where “[a]bout two-thirds of full-time undergraduates who attend a college in a hot spot county are on campuses that do not require routine or surveillance tests”:
How dangerous is this? My readers have a good idea, but let’s add a passage from the NPR story:
“You can’t play catch-up with this virus,” says David Paltiel, a public health expert at Yale University who co-authored a study on the importance of frequent testing. “Any school that thinks it can get away with nothing more than symptomatic monitoring is a fire department responding only to calls once houses have already burned down,” he added. “You need to do more.”
The reason for this potentially horrific shortfall is also one my readers will anticipate: money.
Tests can cost more than $100 each, though some schools have found cheaper options. The Broad Institute, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, is working with more than 100 colleges, including many small private schools in New England, to provide regular coronavirus testing. Through that partnership, tests are $25 each. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where officials are using a saliva test they developed themselves to regularly test students and staff, individual tests are about $10, but given the frequency of testing, officials estimate they’re spending about $1 million a week.
Another reason: lack of national leadership, either from the CDC or the Trump administration.
A third reason: worries that more testing would mean less compliance. For example,
leaders [at Furman University] said they worried that regular testing would give students a false sense of security. When you test negative, “we think psychologically, you feel safer about your own health and well-being,” Ken Peterson, the provost at Furman, told NPR in late August. “So we actually think you’re less likely to mask up, you’re less likely to distance.”
Several quick thoughts:
First, this is potentially a human disaster, especially once infected students leave to spread the virus to their families and communities.
Second, perhaps governments (local, state, federal) will feel the lack of testing as something they should take steps to address.
Third, I don’t think fall 2020 is doing higher ed’s reputation any favors. How many people will think, based on stories like this, that colleges and universities are ruthless with human lives, driven primarily by monetary concerns?
Fourth, the data problem I identified during the summer still continues. NPR is relying on one data source hosted by one small college. The College Crisis Initiative is a fine thing, and it only captures about one third of American higher ed. We just don’t know how many infections higher ed is hosting now, much less how many it’ll be responsible for as the virus spreads. It’s not even clear how many academics COVID has killed.
Fifth, if public concern about colleges and universities hosting and spreading the pandemic rises, where will funds come from to support serious testing, not to mention tracing and data publication? State governments have been hammered by the recession. The federal government is locked into the impending election and its possible chaos. How many campus leaders will have to choose between COVID testing and keeping academic programs alive?
Sixth: it’s October. Flu season is coming. An unsprung election is unfolding. Global COVID cases are rising:
I don’t think this is going to get better anytime soon.