Haves and Have-Nots on COVID-19 Protection

While some colleges make extensive plans to guard against a spread of the coronavirus when they reopen, others can't afford to do as much and are worried about running out of basic supplies.

June 25, 2020
 
Purdue University
Purdue University's Plexiglas shields between instructors and students

When classes resume at Purdue University’s campus in late August, many professors will wear masks and give lectures to students from behind part of the mile of Plexiglas the institution has bought. And on the other side, the students will be wearing masks.

It's unclear how much more protection the Plexiglas will really provide. But Purdue is able to spend as much as $50 million to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And besides putting up the barriers, the university says it is redesigning nearly every physical space on campus, including spreading out desks in classrooms so that they will only hold half as many students as before.

Beds in residence halls are also being moved farther apart, and the university is stocking up on a three-month supply of masks and other protective equipment.

But not all faculty members and students around the country will have the same amount of protection. And illustrating the impact financial disparities between institutions could have as colleges reopen, college presidents worried in interviews last week about more basic protections than throwing up Plexiglas barriers.

They are worried about running out of masks for students or being able to test as many for the virus as they would like.

“I wish I had Purdue’s budget,” said Michael Calvert, president of Pratt Community College. The college is located in rural Kansas, where the pandemic forced the cancellation this month of the Miss Kansas pageant, which had been held on the campus for 60 years. Pratt is taking a number of steps to guard against an outbreak. But Calvert wished he could test more students who are not showing symptoms to make sure they do not pass the virus to others.

Education policy experts do not know of any studies examining disparities that are likely exist from campus to campus amid reopenings. But they worry that low-income and students of color will not have as much protection as others, noting that colleges that disproportionately serve those students have less money.

“The many schools that can't afford to buy a mile of Plexiglas are disproportionately the ones that lower-income students and students of color attend -- community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and even a number of regional universities and small liberal arts schools,” said Wesley Whistle, senior adviser for education policy and strategy at New America, a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C.

At the City University of New York, Barbara Bowen, head of the union that represents the system’s faculty and staff, said CUNY hasn’t yet detailed how it plans to keep faculty and students safe -- even though at least 38 people affiliated with CUNY have died thus far during the pandemic.

Last week, Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, somewhat hyperbolically said she was worried whether her members would just be able to wash their hands, much less be able to stand behind a Plexiglas barrier.

“One of the instructions during the pandemic is to wash your hands,” she said. And some of the water faucets in the bathrooms at one of the system’s colleges, Brooklyn College, aren’t working, she said.

But her point was that even before the pandemic, faculty had complained in recent years about finding rat droppings, ceilings falling down and contaminated drinking water.

“Even in the absence of a pandemic, there’s not a lot of confidence the administration will keep them safe,” she said of the system’s faculty and workers. Especially when CUNY is facing $150 million in state and New York City budget cuts, as well as the possibility of mass layoffs.

The situation is much better at New Hampshire’s community colleges. But showing that disparities in funding also extend to colleges with mostly white students, the interim chancellor of the community college system, Susan D. Huard, was worried about running out of masks for her nursing and electrical students in the upcoming term and having to ask the community for help getting more.

Last week, Montgomery County in Alabama was on its way to passing Mobile County as having the most coronavirus cases in the state, a distinction it achieved Monday.

At Alabama State University, a historically black institution founded in Montgomery in 1867, the college’s president, Quinton Ross, didn’t know whether he could afford protective shields for his instructors. He was set for masks and protective gear for the moment, but he didn’t know if his supplies would last after the fall term.

The $3.1 million the university received to use on its own operations as part of the federal CARES Act helped. But he worried like many other college presidents about the pandemic’s impact on the fall term. “The question is will students even return in the fall, which drives the revenue,” he said.

“We may have had the ability to give one big push” to deal with the cost of the pandemic, he said. “But can you sustain the cost of extra cleaning or personal protective equipment?”

And speaking of the fall term, he said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to sustain past then.”

Even Smaller Colleges Take Precautions

The officials at New Hampshire's two-year colleges, Alabama State and other institutions said they are doing all they can to follow public health guidelines, like making room in classrooms to allow for social distancing.

“Walls are being torn down right now,” said Timothy Leary, president of Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania, during a recent interview.

Classrooms are being doubled in size. Larger spaces like the college’s gymnasium and even the pool room are being turned into classrooms. Luzerne County has bought Plexiglas but only for busy workers who often interact with students, such as those who work in the registrar’s office.

“I wish there was a more level playing field," he said. “The more you have, the more financial support you have to enhance what you do.”

The University of Alabama, for instance, is planning to have students and faculty sign in daily to an app to log their health symptoms. The app could also be used to keep track of who people have been around and to notify them if a person tests positive for the virus.

Leary said he wished his college could do that. Or hire experts to advise him on testing.

To some presidents, dealing with having less money than others is nothing new. But dealing with the pandemic feels different to Calvert, of Pratt Community College in Kansas.

“I’ve been through economic downturns, but I’ve never had to deal with the impact of a virus putting people’s safety in peril,” he said.

The threat of the virus hit home in March when two of his staff members tested positive for the virus.

“Good God, we’re like a nonfloating cruise ship,” he said he realized.

The University of California, San Diego, is planning to voluntarily test all students, even those without symptoms, to lessen the chances those who are infected by the virus but asymptomatic will spread it to others. And the University of Colorado at Boulder is planning to test all students who live on campus, as well as others in at-risk populations.

Pratt is relying on the local county health department to test students. And the county now is testing only those with symptoms.

“Right now, we don’t have the capacity to do asymptomatic testing,” Calvert said. “If we had the capacity to test everybody, and it was affordable and available, I would at least do random testing.”

The college is putting up Plexiglas where staff interact with students and the public. “We haven’t gone that far,” he said when asked if the barriers will be added to classrooms.

“We’re doing what we can,” he said. “We’ve explored temperature sensors. We’ve explored all kinds of options.”

But he doesn’t have Purdue’s budget.

The benefits of having an additional layer of protection with the Plexiglas appears mostly to give instructors some more comfort. A Purdue spokesman didn't comment on how much good the shields do.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, said standing behind a Plexiglas shield is certainly safer than not. But he said it doesn't help much if everyone in class is wearing a mask, and probably isn't worth the expense.

Still, the barriers may mean more protection for faculty members who are fearful of going back to class. "I suspect we want that which is going to be safest," said Chris Sinclair, president of United Academics, which represents faculty members at the University of Oregon, which is still working out the details of reopening.

Risk of Lawsuits?

To make matters worse for less wealthy institutions, being able to take fewer precautions could make them more likely to be sued if someone gets sick on their campuses.

The American Council on Education, which advocates on behalf of the nation’s colleges and universities, has been making that argument in urging Congress to create a shield from legal liability for coronavirus-related lawsuits.

“Some campuses, like the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Arizona, have announced massive testing schemes as a part of their return to campus,” Texas Christian University’s general counsel, Leroy Tyner Jr., testified to the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee last month.

He worried that other institutions will be held to that standard and asked in court why they didn’t do the same if they are sued.

“What if an institution does not have access to or cannot afford that kind of testing? This will certainly be the case for hundreds of institutions across the country -- small, tuition-dependent private colleges, underresourced public two-year community colleges, and four-year regional universities,” Tyner told the committee.

“All issues of liability are of concern,” Calvert agreed in an email. “We certainly will make our campus as safe as we possibly can, however, there will be other schools with more resources that may/will provide additional measures that we cannot financially afford or even have access to.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, however, opposes creating liability protection. She said what’s needed is more money for colleges.

"Instead of rushing to embrace liability waivers that callously transfer virus risk from institutions to workers and students, we should actually fund colleges to prepare them for a safe reopening," she said. “The bottom line is that a safe reopening is going to require more money, not less.”

Republicans who control the Senate have said they want to keep the size of a possible next stimulus package down, after already spending $3 trillion on relief bills this year.

But Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, voiced support for additional funding to help schools and colleges reopen.

Congress, he said on CNBC’s Squawk Box Tuesday, should “make sure that our schools have the money they need to open safely in the fall. I mean, the surest step back toward normalcy in our country is when 70 to 75 million college and high school and elementary school students go back to school. They need to go back. Their parents need for them to go back, and the economy needs for them to go back. So if we need more money for that, I'm for that.”

Others, though, are skeptical colleges really need more money.

“There will definitely be some new costs imposed on schools to cope with COVID-19 concerns that some schools will be able to handle better than others,” said Mary Clare Amselem, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. But, she said, “I am doubtful that schools simply don't have the funds to invest in extra health precautions. It will most likely be a matter of choosing which investments to prioritize.”

Amselem added that, “College campuses have become a one-stop shop for all the needs one might possibly have during their time at school (multiple gyms, guidance counselors, athletic fields, student social centers, luxurious dorm rooms, etc.). Those types of things distract funds from the true purpose of higher ed.”

And some college leaders say they are managing. Rick Gallot, Grambling University's president, said enrollment for the fall is up 5 percent, and that space in residence halls has a waiting list.

He attributed the increase partly to the university’s creation of Louisiana’s first cloud computing and cybersecurity degree programs, as well as more interest in attending HBCUs by students of color amid the concern over police violence.

“Students want to go to a place where they will be celebrated and not tolerated, and not be racially profiled or stopped by the police,” he said.

There’s also Sweet Briar College, a private women's college in Virginia. Only five years after it faced closure, the college has empty dorm rooms, enabling it to offer a private room to any student who wants it during the pandemic.

That and other precautions the college is taking to promote safety have helped Sweet Briar be on pace for a 20 percent increase in enrollment this fall, said Meredith Woo, the university’s president.

Disparities in Education

Still, many, like Michelle Dimino, education policy adviser at the centrist think tank Third Way, worry the need to come up with the money to protect students and faculty during the pandemic is a blow to less well-funded colleges.

Those tend to be colleges that disproportionately serve low-income and minority students, said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

She pointed to a study in April by the Center for American Progress, for instance, that examined how much public two- and four-year institutions spend per student, as well as the racial makeup at the colleges.

The report found that colleges nationally spend $1,000 less per Black or Latino student than for white students. Nationally, public colleges spend $5 billion less annually educating their students from minority backgrounds.

“Funding disparities in higher education have always been a problem,” Jones said. “But they put certain students and certain colleges at even higher risk this fall because of the added costs of COVID-19 prevention.”

But even colleges where the majority of students are white say spreading out poses financial challenges.

Huard, of the New Hampshire community college system, for instance, noted that moving classrooms farther apart also means each one can hold fewer students.

That in turn means instructors will have to teach more classes, including evenings and weekends.

And the colleges will have to pay them.

Angie Paccione, executive director of Colorado’s higher education department, said she noticed the disparity during a recent videoconference call with university presidents.

All the colleges were taking steps to protect their students and faculty, she said. "But one president was talking about spending $250,000 on testing. And they were going to test everybody coming in and then test regularly. I could see the heads shaking that they could spend $250,000 on testing."

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