Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


​Part 1: Crystal Watson and David Long

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security explores how new policy approaches, scientific advances, and technological innovations can strengthen health security and save lives. JHU senior scholar Crystal Watson and David Long, founder and managing partner for Tuscany Strategy, discuss how they partnered to design a free toolkit to help institutions manage their campus during COVID-19, including how to safely reopen. (Recorded June 18, 2020)

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this episode:


COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education

COVID-19 Planning Guide (PDF version)

COVID-19: Hot to Get Reopening Right

Hosts and Guests
David Long
Founder and Managing Partner, Tuscany Strategy
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David Long - Founder and Managing Partner, Tuscany Strategy - Guest
David Long
Founder and Managing Partner, Tuscany Strategy
Crystal Watson
Senior Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
Read More
Crystal Watson - Senior Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security - Guest
Crystal Watson
Senior Scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Welcome to another episode of ACE Engage conversations, focused on COVID-19 and its impact on higher education. I'm your host, Philip Rogers, Senior Vice President at the American Council on Education. And this is the first in a series of episodes about how institutions are navigating the recovery and reopening process on their campuses and specifically what they plan, what they're learning and how they're adapting in real-time to the emerging issues of this pandemic. And our conversation today I hope will set the tone for the series and we're pleased to welcome two national experts in this space to the digital table: our friend, Dr. Crystal Watson is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and is an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. And we're also joined by David Long, founding principal and managing partner at Tuscany Strategy Consulting. So Crystal and David, great to have you with us today.

Crystal Watson: Thanks very much for having us.

David Long: Thanks very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Philip Rogers: Well, we're certainly glad to have you and looking forward to the conversation. And before we do jump into it, I'd love for the two of you to give us your 30 to 60 second life commercial, your preview of your past and current scholarship and work so our listeners will have a bit of a sense of your background as we lead into the conversation today. So Crystal, why don't we start with you and then David, we'd love to hear from you as well.

Crystal Watson: Sure. Thanks so much. So I am a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security and I work with my colleagues to help prepare for, prevent and respond to infectious disease, emergencies, and other public health emergencies. And so we've been studying pandemics, not just during COVID-19, but for a really long time. And so we have put forth a number of guidance documents to help with response to this pandemic, because we've been studying it so intensely both in the last six months and over the last 15 years or so. And so we really are committed to trying to help people open up more safely to manage the spread of this pandemic more efficiently and effectively, and to learn from other parts of the world what's been done well. So we really think that education is critical and we need to be able to bring people back to campus more safely. And so that's why I wanted to work on this tool with Tuscany.

Philip Rogers: As if you weren't busy enough in your regular day research to add a real time pandemic on top of it to practice what you've been doing. Thanks for making the rounds across all the different media outlets and joining us today, Crystal. David, glad to have you with us too.

David Long: Thanks very much. So I'm the managing partner of Tuscany Strategy Consulting, and we work in both education and healthcare, and we have specialized practices in higher education, specifically covering strategy, operations, change management, academic programs, all areas of college and university operations. And over the past two months, we were struck as we spoke with deans, provosts, and presidents of institutions at the real vast array of thinking around COVID-19. And in some cases, a lot of duplication of effort, as well as in some instances, some uneven planning processes. And so part of the genesis of this was those conversations. And we thought there was an opportunity for us along with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to really put together this tool kit and create something that could help either jumpstart or provide a level of assurance for folks as they go through the planning process.

Philip Rogers: Great. Well, I think we certainly have two of the right leaders with the right backgrounds for today's conversation. And so let's get into the action immediately. And I don't think there's a day that goes by, at least during my week, where I'm not talking to a president or a provost or some C-suite level leader in higher education who would love to be sitting in front of you. And so we're going to have this conversation in a way that they feel like they have access to you and your knowledge and your intellect and your background in research in this space. And the coronavirus outbreak continues ,as we've talked about already, to paralyze our society and higher education, as David said, has certainly not been immune to that impact. And I know this is something you've both recognized and as you said, have partnered on to help develop a guide for institutions and in many other resources actually, to help frame the top of mind issues for reopening and for managing a campus during this time.`But I think most importantly, as I talk to leaders, I'd love for us to unpack this concept of how presidents and C-suite leaders can create an infrastructure that helps institutions operate in a fluid environmen, one that as I've had conversations with them has just a ton of uncertainty. And as we've seen at other times, one that requires leaders to operate in the absence of information and the absence of what is to come even in the next couple of days, weeks, or months. And so David, maybe start with you and give us a high level on what you all have put together in collaboration with Johns Hopkins, how you see it adding value to the higher ed community and then let's have Crystal weigh in on some of the health-related impacts of what you've developed.

David Long: Great. So I should first mention that the complete COVID-19 toolkit, it's a pro bono initiative for all the parties that are involved. There are really four components: the first is, which is a website that houses all of the materials along with four databases that track college and university responses to COVID-19, actions they're taking, reports and guidelines, as well as media reports and things like surveys that have been in the news. And we update those regularly, multiple times a week. The planning guide provides a planning framework for a very comprehensive response. So it's divided into really three groupings around leadership, cross-functional work groups and functional workers and lists over 500 discrete elements that institutions should be considering as part of their planning initiatives. And then paired with that, we are going to release an online project planning tool that enables institutions to create their own shared online project plan and issue a resolution tracker for every element that's listed in the guide. I think that's a very handy tool, that's very practical to use along with the guide which provides the broad overview. And then finally a really vital component of the toolkit is the self-assessment calculator, which was spearheaded by Dr. Watson and Lucia Mullen and Tom Inglesby at the Center for Health Security. So Crystal, let me hand that off to you.

Crystal Watson: Thanks, David. Yeah, so we wanted to give leaders at colleges and universities, a chance to really assess their levels of risk in different areas of reopening and bringing people back to campus. And so this tool kit is a self-assessment calculator that has people go through different stages, looking at risk in a variety of areas that we think are important. It gives you a risk rating and then leaders can go on to look through a series of mitigation steps in a number of categories, including health and safety, communication, academics, residency, dining, a number of key areas that we think are really important to reduce risk. And then rate yourself based on a series of questions that are in that section. Once you've done that...I should say that all of these are connected in some way to the planning guidance that David has put together and his team--so it's all an integrated toolkit, but once you've looked at the mitigation steps that a university or college could take to reduce risk, it gives you a determination of your overall risk based on both of those components, so the risk assessment and the mitigation questionnaire. And it gives them advice on what level of risk you have and whether you might want to go back and look at implementing additional mitigation steps in order to open more safely in the fall.

Philip Rogers: Great. So let's talk about these and many more aspects of the work you've put together. And I think one of the foundational factors of your resource guide is the set of four big questions or areas of focus that you point out on the front end of it, that campuses should consider continuing to ask themselves whether they're at the beginning of the planning process, in the middle of the planning process, maybe they've already completed it and they're about to launch it, or they're working through the implementation component of it. And so David, I know you all put together these big themes, I'm curious for you to walk the audience through those and why did these four rise to the top for you and your group?

David Long: Right. So we really wanted to distill down what could otherwise be a fairly overwhelming planning process. And one of the challenges is, institutions are going to need to be comprehensive in their approach, they can't really leave off pieces of the planning process. So as we went through, we tried to identify four central questions that really would help guide those who were either already in a planning process or want to double check where they are in a planning process. So the questions really are around prep: are you prepared from a health and safety standpoint, from a financial planning and resources standpoint, from an academic quality, as well as managerial and oversight standpoint. So each one of those, which the guide begins with these four questions, we've created a crosswalk that lets you get into the core areas of the COVID-19 planning guide in order to more surgically try to assess where do you stand. But we see those really as the four central areas, are you going to have a safe environment for students, faculty and staff to return? Is the academic quality and are the instructional programs sufficiently robust for this potentially turbulent environment? Will you have the financial resources to be successful at all of this? And then finally we think there's a series...this is presenting a set of challenges around leadership and management that are unprecedented. And so it is extraordinarily important for the leadership to be excellent from a communication standpoint and managing all of these different teams in a cohesive manner, so that they're able to execute on time, with a good solid plan, and with appropriate input from all the key stakeholders.

Philip Rogers: And you worked with a group of senior leaders in higher education, presidents, former presidents, other advisors too, to capture real time information that they were feeding you to be able to identify some of these things, is that right?

David Long: That's right. In many ways it was the reviewers and the folks that helped inspire the guide that really breathed life into it and helped us center on some of the most important aspects such as the president of the Maryland Institute College of Art really helped us focus on the idea of building a community of care, which is absolutely critical in this environment because as so many new policies and protocols are put in place, it really is going to create the opportunity for there to be inequities in the environment. And we can envision areas where universities and colleges will come together very naturally, but we think that if there's not a purposeful plan around that, it could really be challenging as you move between different COVID transmission levels.

Philip Rogers: So I think all four of the themes that you identified up front are vital, but I do want to hone in on just a few that are emerging as top of mind for campuses right now. And I spoke with three presidents just this morning and this I think is where Crystal's expertise comes in. They're laser focused on the health preparations. And then obviously some of the leadership aspects of guiding the campus during the crisis in general is another area that I think we should unpack, but let's do start with the health arena and get into some of the weeds here. And again, we're really fortunate to have an expert like Crystal at the table for this conversation. And so for some institutions, we're now one month or less out from a committed date for opening, many institutions have made the commitment to move forward on August 10th or earlier, and have put some measures in place to prepare for it. And I even spoke to a leader this morning who has college athletes back on campus, and they're slowly beginning to bring different groups of students back into the fold. And I think one thing we all know is that the cumulative state of all the indicators at any one point in time will influence each institution's operational response. So Crystal, as we get closer to the start of the fall semester, in your expert perspective, what are some of the most critical health and safety related questions that campuses or what one might think of as a mini city, really, with thousands of students and faculty and staff and community leaders, what should they be asking related to the reopening that they're preparing for?

Crystal Watson: Yeah. So I think we have a list of some of the most critical high-level areas that are in need of focus in terms of health and safety and reducing risk for students, staff, and faculty, as they begin to return to campus. So a lot of these are things that leadership at colleges and universities have been struggling with and will continue to struggle with, but I just wanted to highlight a few higher level areas. So first is, can in-person classes and other activities be made safe enough to justify their return to campus? So we're concerned mostly about those situations where you might have large gatherings of students or faculty, where there's much greater opportunity for transmission and much greater opportunity for significant consequences if there is transmission. So you could kickoff a large epidemic. And so another area that we think is really important is the housing/living situation. So if students live on campus, can the student housing be modified in a way that large outbreaks of COVID-19 can be prevented? We also think that we need to pay attention to other physical spaces around these campuses. So making sure that there are policies and protocols and modifications to physical spaces that can be put in place to reduce the opportunity for transmission and do all of this while maintaining the viability and the quality of education and essential on-campus activities. So these are some of the big questions that we're asking, and I think they're not easy questions and we have a lot of guidance in this tool that can help answer those questions, but we need to make sure that we're preventing any situation where we might be putting people at significant increased risk, as well as putting our surrounding communities at risk, if we were to kick off an epidemic.

Philip Rogers: Yeah, we'd love to follow a couple of those trails. I continue to talk to leaders at residential college campuses who are thinking really carefully about the impact of these close living environments. And I'm interested in your reflections on how they should be thinking about quarantine, strategies, if an outbreak emerges with students who are living in dormitories on campus and how to address the needs that they may have and to prevent it from spreading further across the institution.

Crystal Watson: Sure. I think that's a really critical policy area that schools need to think about carefully. It's going to be a difficult situation because I know campus living is inherently fairly crowded, and it's not usually one student to a room, but the extent to which you can minimize the roommate situations, you can create single occupant housing. And if you can't do that, having policies in place about quarantine and isolation of those who become sick, quarantine of those who are exposed. It's important that individuals who are put in quarantine are put in single occupancy quarantine rooms, because you don't want to expose lots of other people, if someone in quarantine is indeed infected. So that's really important. You can look at co-boarding individuals who are sick with COVID-19 because they have the same virus. And so thinking through what that looks like, how much extra housing you would need, what your policies are going to be for roommates and how you will separate them, if they are exposed. It's a really complex set of problems to think through. But it's really critical because we've seen in other parts of the world, dormitory situations have resulted in big outbreaks of COVID-19. And so that's what we want to prevent here.

Philip Rogers: And then you connect a residential college campus with one of the unique aspects of institutions, which is a wide range of students, faculty, staff that are present on campus and how to protect health when there are different risks at play. In terms of age and health conditions that are emerging and protections for vulnerable populations and others. I'm sure there's many things on your radar in that space as well.

Crystal Watson: Yeah, so that's really essential. There will be students, staff, and faculty who won't be able to return, or are not comfortable with returning for a variety of reasons, whether they themselves are more vulnerable to severe disease with COVID-19 or if they have family members living with them who are. So it's really important to have alternatives for those students so they are able to access campus resources and go to classes, teach classes, even though they're not able to be physically present. So it's an extra level that colleges and universities are going to have to be dealing with providing these virtual resources at the same time they're trying to bring back in-person classes and other services at the schools.

Philip Rogers: A question for both you and David, I had a dialogue this morning with the campus leader who asked me, "Is ACE aware of any campuses that have established thresholds in terms of how to pivot from face-to-face, back to online or to a remote environment, if an outbreak does occur?" And that for me raises the question around what triggers should be in place to raise or lower alert levels and what are the right indicators for campus leaders in terms of when to make some shifts if things begin to escalate. And so your reactions and advice on that front?

David Long: Right. Well, the planning guide gives a framework for managing and work levels, which is going to be a critical thing for colleges and universities to set up before they have students on campus. So the concept of the work levels is to indicate the severity of COVID-19 transmission and have predefined what the implications are for institutional operations. So the framework we've got in the guide, lists out very high, high, moderate, and low work levels, which represents a new normal, which we'll get to at some point. And so each one essentially lists out what are the thresholds for raising to a higher level or decreasing to a lower level, and it's important to be cognizant of both of those. So we touch on the disease control aspects, the different phases, the student and faculty and staff protections, and have enumerated how to think about each one of those by a work level. Now, we did not make this prescriptive because every institution is different. So this is a general framework that can be applied, but will need to be adapted whether it's a community college, a big research university, a liberal arts school, whether it's urban, rural, suburban, whether the campus is closed or open, the age of the students, a whole variety of factors. But the framework should help identify with a pretty high degree of specificity a good starting point for thinking about the work levels and different thresholds.

Philip Rogers: Right, thank you, David. Crystal?

Crystal Watson: Yeah. So just to go into a little more detail on the types of indicators you might look at. So within disease control, we thought about signs of early resurgence of cases. If there is an increasing trend in daily reported cases, both either on campus or in the surrounding community, that's a good indicator to watch. Testing is a very important both public health tool, as well as a good indicator of where an outbreak is going. So we need to know that testing is wide enough to detect the cases that are occurring, either in the campus or in the surrounding community. And so one good indicator of that is the percent of tests that are turning up positive, the lower that percentage, the better off we are, both in terms of the spread of the disease. It indicates the disease spread is lower in and of itself, but also that we're testing widely enough to be testing people without the disease and not just the people who are most seriously affected and going to the hospital. And so that can be an indicator of how widespread a disease is in the community. And then also looking at tests conducted in high-risk populations, trying to understand who is at highest risk and if they are being exposed to this virus in our communities is important. Another key public health tool and indicator is the robustness of contact tracing. So whether schools are doing contact tracing themselves, or they are partnering with their local or state health department to ensure that contact tracing is happening for cases on campus. It's important to build that capacity as well as to track how effective that is. And one way to track that would be the percentage of new cases that are linked to other known cases. Because if you're finding lots of new cases, that have no epidemiological link to someone else who has been sick then you know that there's widespread community transmission and the health department will need to take different steps to control the spread of the disease as well as colleges and universities. So those are all examples of key indicators. There are more in the toolkit, but we think it's important to have a good view of what's happening in the community and in the college campus to really understand where the disease is and then that helps us be able to control it.

Philip Rogers: A really critical lens for leaders to understand. David, I think you were going to jump in?

David Long: Yeah, I was going to add one more that's very important, which is an esoteric indicator is really, we would say, our stakeholders complying with the restrictions that are put in place by the college or university. So this indicator would be the percentage of adults who are supporting public health measures, and that can be measured both directly but institutions should think about indirect measures as well. So it could be that you can have an environment where the COVID transmission is not that high and would not be setting off a higher work level, but where there is broad noncompliance that might actually trigger a move to a higher work level and vice versa. So you may have a more concerning state of COVID 19 transmission, but if faculty staff, students are doing an excellent job of maintaining physical distancing and wearing PPE and so forth, then that potentially changes that equation.

Philip Rogers: Certainly managing these risk levels and indicators will be a difficult thing in a normal environment, but in an environment where institutions have limited resources, are seeing enrollment declines, their budgets are being cut and addressed in ways that we've never seen. Being able to manage the capacity to track, trace, to test, to quarantine, to address even broader, more public things like how to handle intercollegiate athletics events are all big leadership tasks that senior campus officials are facing. And as I think about wrapping up here, one of the questions that we ask all of our guests on these episodes of Engage Conversations is to conclude by talking about your high level thoughts for institutional leaders during this time. And many of our listeners are presidents, senior campus officials, or those who aspire to these roles. And what advice would you give them for thinking about leadership in general for their campuses and the implications for this cross functional work and continuing to move their mission forward in the midst of this time? David, we'll go to you first.

David Long: I think there are really three key things for leadership to be thinking about. And I think first and foremost is academic quality. It's going to take just an enormous effort of everybody involved in university operations to make this really as successful as it can be. And that includes significantly more training, it probably includes more experimentation in different instructional formats all before the start of classes. I'm adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and we have very exhaustive discussions about how are we going to actually practically do this? And in a sense, the challenge is you have to prepare for every environment, in person remote and ideally being able to do in-person and remote at the same time, which is a challenge unto itself because great practices for online education is different from in-person and vice versa. So finding a way to marry all of that is going to be, I think that's a universal challenge. And just to maintain the very high levels of academic quality that are expected. I should mention there was a new resource that came out, which actually will be listed on, which is from the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education. And they just came out with about 33 articles on emergency remote learning, which is a great resource for institutions. It also has an ebook on technology teaching and teaching education, which touches on a very wide variety of everything from curriculum, to technology, teacher training. So there are tons of resources out there to help, particularly with the academic quality side. The other two things, which I've mentioned before are equity and inclusion and building a community of care. And we do have some real concerns that institutions will establish policies that really inadvertently create inequities, as well as having concerns around stigma that COVID-19 can engender, whether it be towards groups of people or individuals. And I think institutions will really benefit by very purposefully addressing these issues upfront. And then thirdly, communication is absolutely critical. And that's both between, from a planning standpoint, between work groups, up and down through cross functional and functional work groups. But also just making sure that the key stakeholders have a voice in the planning process, as well as during the execution, during normal operations, much more so than they normally would. But this is not an environment where you want to ask forgiveness later, you want to get permission ahead of time and be on the same page with all the key stakeholders.

Philip Rogers: Thanks, David. I think it's appropriate to give our health expert the final word before we close out.

Crystal Watson: Those were really great points. I am definitely focused on the health and safety aspects of this. So I think health and safety obviously is critically important here. We want to protect the health of the students, staff, and faculty, if we choose to bring them back to campus. But we also have to carefully assess the benefits of returning to campus and balance that against the risks. Because if the benefits of return don't make the risks worthwhile, if the instruction is significantly degraded, if there are inequities that are generated as a result of this return, then it may not be advisable to take the risk. So it's just going have to be a very careful balancing act where risks and benefits are both considered here. And so I don't envy any of the leadership that's in the position of making these decisions, but I hope that this guidance makes it a little bit easier, even if it just points out all of the details that should be considered when they're thinking about this return.

Philip Rogers: Well, David and Crystal, thank you for your time. We're grateful for your expertise and for your support of higher education during these unprecedented times.

David Long: Thank you very much.

Crystal Watson: Thank you.

Philip Rogers: Glad to have you with us. That concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engage Conversations. We invite you to please also listen to ACEs public podcast dotEDU at, or you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks again, for your time, we look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you learn and lead in the flow of your work.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go. 

Part of ACE Engage Conversations. Sign up at to listen to past episodes.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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