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Paxson testifies on reopening college campuses safely before U.S. Senate Committee

Alongside other higher education presidents, APHA executive director, Paxson outlined strategies for fall, emphasized role of federal government

In testimony before the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday morning, President Christina Paxson P’19 outlined essential aspects of any plan to safely reopen college campuses in the fall in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

During the full committee hearing, titled “COVID-19: Going Back to College Safely,” Paxson also answered questions from senators on the role of the federal government in supporting colleges through the pandemic. Paxson said the government will need to address health, economic and other disparities; health plan enforcement mechanisms; necessary financial support for students; liability standards for higher education; and other specific strategies included in plans to safely reopen in the fall. 

In a community-wide email sent Thursday afternoon, Paxson wrote that she “was glad to be able to help build understanding among our country’s leaders of the complicated decisions we are confronting” and the role the government can play in supporting reopening. 

“No campus should open if it can’t do so safely — or if they choose not to do so,” she wrote, “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.”

Purdue University President Mitchell Daniels, Lane College President Logan Hampton and Executive Director of the American Public Health Association Georges Benjamin served as witnesses alongside Paxson at the hearing.

How to return safely, and why it’s crucial

Paxson, who joined the hearing through video call, opened her statement by acknowledging the continuing protests against police brutality throughout the nation, and “the pain the country is facing over systemic issues of racial injustice.” 

“In times like these, our colleges and universities play a critical role in building collective understanding and calling for action,” she said. 

Still, as the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue without a widely-disseminated vaccine — which is unlikely to be available in the fall — Paxson emphasized that the University will only reopen campus if it is safe to do so according to public health guidelines and expertise. “We will not compromise safety,” she said, adding that all plans for the fall must be “science-” and “evidence-based.” 

While Brown has not yet issued an official decision on what the start of the 2020-21 academic year will look like, in her testimony, Paxson outlined elements of the University’s plan in the event that there is at least some on-campus learning in the fall.

These elements include testing all students and employees upon their return to campus and testing for all symptomatic students and employees throughout the year. Random testing of asymptomatic community members to track the prevalence of the disease and contact tracing through both “traditional and technology-enabled” means would also take place, according to her written testimony.

In addition, residence halls would be “de-densified” so that students would live in singles with fewer students sharing bathrooms. Classrooms, libraries and dining halls would be “reconfigured to enable social distancing” and large lectures would take place virtually. The University would also implement a “robust public health education campaign” to ensure students are aware of how to keep each other and the wider community safe, Paxson wrote.

This plan would require coordinating with state and local public health authorities in order to protect students and employees, as well as the local communities University members engage with.

“This work is complex, it is all-consuming, it is very expensive,” Paxson said in her testimony. “But if this is what it takes to make a safe opening possible, it is well worth it. Because there is so much at stake.” 

For now, it remains difficult to predict how safe it will be to reopen campuses in the fall. All colleges can do is “plan for the worst and hope for the best by thinking (through) what we know about the science today,” Benjamin told The Herald in a separate interview.

The University is still considering two other options for the 2020-21 academic year: an entirely remote fall semester or a tri-semester model by which students would enroll in two semesters of the year. Paxson has committed to sharing an official decision on the University’s plans for the fall by July 15, The Herald previously reported.

Importance of federal support

Through any plan implemented for the fall, Paxson highlighted the role the federal government must play to support institutions of higher education in these decisions. She testified that the higher education sector cannot reopen without “continued federal support.”

Universities will need assistance in funding increased financial aid and emergency support for research and graduate positions, Paxson said.

The University’s deficit for Fiscal Year 2021 is estimated to be “significantly larger” than previous years and could range from $100 million to $200 million, The Herald previously reported. And while Brown will be able to weather the increased financial costs and losses prompted by the public health and economic crisis, many other institutions will not, Paxson said in her testimony. 

In a May 29 letter to the U.S. Senate, the American Council on Education and 84 other signed associations and entities estimated that “higher education will require $46.6 billion to address near-term financial needs, including need-based aid for students and costs incurred due to campus closures,” Paxson wrote in her testimony. This figure excludes additional costs for reopening in the fall, such as for testing, tracing and isolation. “Additional assistance should go directly to institutions,” she wrote. 

“We know that state and local health departments are underfunded,” Benjamin told The Herald. “In order for them to provide the support to colleges and do the testing and contact tracing, they're going to need to be adequately supported.”

Questions from senators: government oversight, supporting students, liability

After all four witnesses gave their statements, they took questions from senators on various elements of reopening campuses safely in the fall.

Committee Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) began the question portion of the hearing by asking each of the witnesses for their thoughts on the amount of oversight the federal government should have in issuing rules for higher education. He asked Paxson about her goal of testing every student, saying that such widespread testing is neither feasible nor recommended. 

In response, Paxson said that she regards the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “minimum guidelines.” 

Next, Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) asked each president how they plan to “address the alarming health disparities impacting our communities of color” as they think about reopening. People of color and lower-income communities are more likely to be at risk in the face of the novel coronavirus, in part because members in these communities often serve as essential workers and typically have reduced access to health care.

Paxson, who is also an economist, referenced her past studies of health and economic disparities, saying that “issues of inequity are one of the main reasons (colleges) should reopen.” On campuses, institutions of higher education can ensure equal access to education and health services, she said. 

In agreement with Hampton, who asked the federal government to double the maximum award of Pell Grants in his testimony, Paxson said that lower-income and first-generation students must be supported through any financial difficulties so that they can return to campus. In his testimony, Hampton also called for a federal investment of $1 billion in emergency funding to historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities and other institutions serving minorities. 


Responding to Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who asked about campus protocols and the enforcement mechanisms universities would implement, Paxson said that all campus guidelines must be uniform, “crystal clear” and “grounded in public health rules.” 

She added that at Brown, it would be communicated that breaking such protocols would constitute a violation of the Code of Student Conduct, but that “ideally,” protocols would be supported not through enforcement, but rather through a campus culture in which students recognize the importance of following the rules to ensure each other’s safety and the health of the wider community.

After asking Daniels about his public plans to protect vulnerable campus workers, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pressed Paxson on the issue of “power and accountability.” Warren cited Paxson’s role as vice chair of the Association of American Universities, which signed a letter urging Congress to implement liability protections for higher education institutions in the case of harm caused by COVID-19 on campuses. Stating that the current law imposes liability on institutions only when colleges have “behaved unreasonably,” Warren asked what message Paxson thought it sent when higher education lobbied Congress to change this standard.

“I do not want protection from being careless,” Paxson responded. “That is not what we’re about. If we’re careless, if we don’t follow guidelines, that is not something that should be protected in any way, shape or form.” 

Still, she said that in this unprecedented situation, many institutions are “very nervous that even if they play by the rules scrupulously, that they will still be subject to lawsuits,” which can be costly and “take money away from financial aid and all the support we provide to our students.” In this vein, Paxson said she supports “very carefully created liability protection” that does not protect careless behavior.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked the presidents the extent to which universities were able to reimburse students for the semester and provide direct relief. 

“We really pulled out all the stops trying to support all students,” Paxson said, citing the University’s provision of E-Gap Funds and other assistance for travel, laptops and internet access, in addition to the waiving of summer earnings requirements for students on financial aid, as examples. The University has also worked with the city of Providence to ensure local high schoolers have internet access, she said. 

While Paxson believed those provisions to be “fairly successful,” she noted that “what we found … is that the needs are continuing, and in some ways, growing.” 

As the national unemployment rate has reached a staggering level and many students find themselves and their families without jobs, “it is very hard to meet that full need,” Paxson said. “We’re getting requests for help for food. That’s where we’re at.”

In response to a question from Sen. Maggie Hassan ’80 P’15 (D-NH) on the financial impact students have faced due to the pandemic and further action required by the U.S. Department of Education, Paxson described how after the 2008 Great Recession, the University increased scholarships by 12 percent to meet all undergraduates’ demonstrated need.

But today, when the unemployment rate dwarfs even the peak rate of the financial crisis, Paxson said that the University is hearing from students whose Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms are no longer accurate representations of their families’ economic circumstances. “We’re having to go back and revisit all of those aid awards,” she said. “We’re in an extraordinary time for students and their parents.” 

Paxson also disagreed with the Department of Education’s decision to exclude Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, veterans and students who have not yet completed FAFSA forms from the assistance allocated toward students in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

“I firmly believe that if the point is to protect students who are the future of our country,” then that includes protecting DACA recipients, veterans and first-generation, low-income and undocumented students, Paxson said in response to a question from Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). While the University has not received CARES funding, “our intent would be to support all students as equally as we can.”

Overall, Paxson wrote in her testimony, “efforts at providing relief and support should recognize the unique role of higher education institutions to serve and support a broad and complex population of students, faculty and staff, and do so in as safe a manner as possible.”

“I recognize that the needs of students and employees are extraordinary,” she wrote, “but a full post-pandemic recovery requires a response that’s equally unprecedented.”



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