Senate Education Committee Hearing Looks at Reopening College Campuses This Fall
June 05, 2020

​​​​​​A hearing​ June 4 in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions looked into the question dominating the higher education community this summer: how to safely reopen campuses this fall.

College presidents called to testify included Christina Paxson of Brown University and Mitch Daniels of Purdue University, who have been visible proponents of reopening physical campuses, as well as Logan Hampton, president of Lane College in Tennessee. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, was also on the panel.

The hearing revolved around how colleges will reduce risk as students, faculty, and staff begin working, living, and socializing on campus. Ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) stressed the need for detailed federal guidance to help campuses plan, and also called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other agency heads to address these issues directly with institutions. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said colleges should have the autonomy to make their decisions, but did advocate for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and financial support from Congress. He also discussed the need for targeted and limited liability protections for institutions as they begin to reopen (see Inside Higher Ed for more on the liability protection discussion).

Daniels said Purdue’s entire strategy was built around protecting the most vulnerable populations and giving students a choice about whether to come back to campus or continue with their online studies. He also said he is telling students if they are going to come back, they must be prepared to pitch in on issues such as the need for social distancing. Paxson said Brown will not reopen unless it can do so safely.

There was broad agreement among the witnesses and committee members that the road to reopening is through testing, although how an effective strategy can be built while the current testing capacity remains limited was up for debate. Alexander noted in his opening remarks, the Centers for Disease Control doesn't recommend that every student be tested, but this does not take into account the peace of mind an all-inclusive testing strategy would bring. He urged campuses to rely on their state and local officials for help with testing, but said the federal government should step in to help with supply shortfalls or other problems.

Panelists discussed how the pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities and low-income students, and how institutional plans need to take this into consideration. Hampton called for $1 billion in federal support for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions and for doubling the maximum Pell Grant, and referenced the recent request from ACE and 83 other groups for $46.6 billion to help students and institution this fall. Paxson said that these disparities were among the main reasons colleges should reopen this fall—students need to come back for the help we can give them, such as advising and counseling services, and to ensure they graduate.

The hearing can be viewed on the committee’s website, which also has the full written testimony of each witness. Also read the letter ACE and 35 other associations sent to the HELP committee in advance of the hearing, which outlines the issues and what we need Congress to do in the coming months, including the issue of limited liability protections.

COVID-19 Policy Developments

Learn more about the higher education association effort to urge Congress and the administration to craft a comprehensive response that addresses the challenges students and campuses are facing.

Read more