Paxson tells U.S. Senate stakes are high as universities seek to safely reopen

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Brown President Christina H. Paxson detailed the complex decisions facing university leaders as they assess how to deliver education safely this fall.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Members of a U.S. Senate committee learned on June 4 that the ability of America’s colleges and universities to safely reopen this fall will have implications not only for students pursuing degrees, but also for federally funded research and development, and for regional economies that rely on schools as major economic engines.

And partnership with federal and state governments will be fundamentally critical to the effort to reopen, backed by public health plans that protect the safety of students and employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those comments came from Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, who testified at a U.S. Senate hearing titled “COVID-19: Going Back to College Safely.” Organized by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the hearing convened three college and university presidents and the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Paxson said during her testimony that last spring, when novel coronavirus started to spread in the U.S., universities had no choice but to shutter campuses — testing was scarce, and there was no way to know if the virus was silently spreading through dormitories and classrooms.

“Now, as economies are reopening, we are developing plans to bring research and students back to campus,” she said. “And I want to underscore that Brown will not open unless we can do so safely, and in compliance with CDC and state guidelines. We will not compromise on safety.”

Paxson said the work to develop safe reopening plans — from testing, tracing, isolation and social distancing to plans for classroom spaces and living arrangements — is complex, all-consuming and expensive. But given what is at stake for students, regional economies and research on key national issues, the work is essential, she said.

“This is a time when partnership between higher education and federal government and state governments is more important than ever — for the sake of the research and innovation that is at the core of America’s health care industry and economic competitiveness; the cities and states that rely heavily on institutions as major economic drivers; and especially and most importantly for the sake of our students,” she said.

The U.S. Senate HELP Committee hearing was convened as an opportunity for senators to hear from college and university presidents about their work to help students go back to school in the fall as safely as possible. Key topics included strategies for diagnostic and serology testing, plans to isolate students diagnosed with COVID-19 or exposed to the virus, workplace safety for faculty and staff, implementation of social distancing guidelines, and coordination with state and local public health officials.

In addition to Brown’s president, witnesses included Mitchell Daniels, Purdue University president and former Indiana governor; Logan Hampton, president of Lane College, a historically black college in Tennessee; and Dr. Georges Benjamin, who leads the American Public Health Association.

In a letter to the Brown campus following the hearing, Paxson said the invitation to testify from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the HELP Committee, offered an opportunity to inform Congress about the complex issues at stake for Brown and other institutions of higher education as they consider resuming on-campus operations during the pandemic.

“No campus should open if it can’t do so safely — or if they choose not to do so — but today, Brown was among institutions representing the position that so much is at stake if schools cannot resume operations that the national government should continue to make resources and guidance for higher education a priority,” she wrote.

Brown has started a gradual process to resume research activity on campus this summer and will by July 15 decide on plans for the next academic year. Paxson said during her testimony that she is cautiously optimistic that Brown can reopen in some capacity with “a sound, science-based public health plan” for its campus.

The witnesses responded to questions from committee members on topics that ranged from testing strategies and faculty and staff health, to CARES Act funding, financial support for students facing the pandemic’s economic impacts, and planning for the safe restart of collegiate athletics.

Paxson and many committee members and witnesses pointed out the pain that the country is experiencing over issues of racial injustice and its exacerbation by the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate effect on black people. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the committee’s ranking member, noted that COVID-19 is not the “great equalizer” that it is often described as, with black individuals in particular at greater risk, from both a health and economic standpoint. Paxson said that reopening campuses could play a small part in addressing that challenge.

“I’ve spent my life studying health disparities and economic disparities,” said Paxson, who is an economist and public policy scholar. “Issues in inequity are one of the major reasons why we should open — colleges and universities are places that create level playing fields for students. We can ensure that all students have equal access to education... and to health services. It’s one of the major reasons why I want to get students back.”

Much of the conversation during the hearing centered on the specific plans being developed on campuses to monitor community members for exposure and protect against the spread of novel coronavirus. Among the solutions being explored at Brown and many other campuses are testing, contract tracing, de-densified classrooms, reconfigured residence halls, remote learning options, and public health campaigns to encourage compliance with campus protocols.

Alexander asked the witnesses whether colleges should test every student who returns to campus for COVID-19 and how much federal guidance universities want on testing.

“I think of the CDC guidelines as minimum standards,” Paxson replied, noting that Brown’s strategy will be data-informed and will change over time based on COVID-19 prevalence. “Talking to members of our medical school as well as parents and students and faculty, they want to do surveillance testing on a regular basis throughout the year. It’s both peace of mind, but also being able to monitor the spread of infection. I think it’s essential.”

Paxson told Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) that to effectively promote health and safety upon reopening, campus protocols must be abundantly clear and grounded in public health practices, and there must be shared understanding that violations of those protocols will be treated as violations of Brown’s code of conduct.

“Ideally, though, you don’t do this through enforcement of rules,” Paxson said. “You do this through changing culture and developing a set of norms where students understand that they’re protecting themselves, they’re protecting their fellow students, their faculty members — people who they respect and love. If we can get that message through, I’m very confident that we’ll do well.”

Federal support for financial aid

All three college and university presidents expressed to the senators that additional federal financial support for students — especially those most adversely affected by the pandemic — will be essential in returning students to campuses.

In response to a question from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) — a Brown Class of 1980 graduate — Paxson said that rising unemployment has directly affected the families of many Brown students and that the University is reevaluating financial aid awards for many who say that the federal student aid forms they completed prior to the pandemic are now in no way accurate portrayals of family economic circumstances.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) asked each of the presidents whether they agreed with the U.S. Department of Education’s exclusion of undocumented students from receiving CARES Act funding and the fact that few student military veterans benefit from that legislation.

“I firmly believe that if the point is to protect the students who are the future of our country, we should be protecting DACA students, veterans and international students who are here in this country and need support,” Paxson said. “Students who deserve on economic grounds to be supported need to be supported.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said she is concerned that if colleges do not have adequate support in reopening, increasing numbers of students will end up leaving school with student debt but no degree or credential. Paxson agreed, telling Collins that support from the government in bringing back to campus first-generation students and those from low-income families should be a national priority.

“These students, if they don’t come back — or if they defer or delay — they might never come back,” she said. “And they might not earn their degrees... We need to keep a close eye on persistence in education and degree-completion, especially during this time.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked why universities have advocated for protection from liability, and she pressed the presidents on what message it sends to students and families about the level of care taken with people’s health and safety when institutions ask for increased legal protection.

“I do not want protection from being careless,” Paxson said. “I am in favor of carefully crafted liability protection that in no way, shape or form permits us to be careless with people’s lives. The fact is that we are in unchartered territory. Many institutions are very nervous that even if they play by rules scrupulously, they will still be subject to class action lawsuits. They’ll probably prevail if they’ve done [their plans] right. But the cost of defending those lawsuits will take money away from financial aid and all of the support that we provide for our students.”

Daniels spoke about plans at Purdue, which committed in April to return students to its campus in the fall. He noted in his testimony that upon arrival in August, each member of the Purdue community will receive a kit including face masks and a thermometer for daily temperature-taking, as well as the “Protect Purdue Pledge,” which asks students to commit to abiding by measures to protect themselves and those who teach and otherwise serve them.

The committee members also directed multiple questions about college athletics to Daniels, given Purdue’s membership in the Big Ten Conference. He expressed that he knows that athletics is not the priority when considering other critical forms of support, such as for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Hampton encouraged the senators to provide additional support for Pell Grant recipients and to HBCUs, noting the significant positive impact of Lane College not only on its own students, but also in serving as an economic engine in Jackson, Tennessee.

Benjamin, a medical doctor who leads the American Public Health Association, implored all colleges and universities to develop plans on the premise that cases of COVID-19 on campuses will undoubtedly emerge. Despite generally lower risk for college-aged individuals, “the risk for serious disease is not zero,” he said.

Many of the committee members and all of the witnesses participated remotely in the live-streamed hearing, given the Senate’s social distancing protocols to protect health and safety during the pandemic.

Paxson’s full prepared testimony is available on the Office of the President website. Video from the hearing is available on the HELP Committee website.