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Senate Panel To Hear From College Presidents About Resuming Classes


The Senate Education Committee is looking for answers about how to open up colleges safely in the fall. Today, they're going to hear from college presidents on how they might do that and what they might need from Congress. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Three college presidents are set to address Congress today. They represent Purdue University, which serves about 45,000 students in Indiana, Brown University, an Ivy League school in Rhode Island, and Lane College, a small, private, historically black college in Jackson, Tenn. They'll be sharing their plans to reopen their campuses in the fall. Think things like social distancing, coronavirus testing and slimmed-down dorms and classrooms. One big issue, how much it's going to cost.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: This is going to be an expensive and Herculean task no matter what they do.

NADWORNY: That's Dr. Georges Benjamin, the only one testifying who is not a college president. He is a physician and the executive director of the American Public Health Association. One thing he plans to tell Congress...

BENJAMIN: No matter how careful any of these schools will be in the fall, there will be a individual that comes on campus with COVID-19.

NADWORNY: He says, it won't be like other times when students get sick with the flu or meningitis. This is far more contagious, he says, especially in an environment like a campus.

BENJAMIN: This is going to be a big deal.

NADWORNY: And colleges...

BENJAMIN: They need to do the scenarios now. They need to plan for it.

NADWORNY: He says schools have to clearly communicate the risks to students, faculty and campus workers. And they'll need to work with local officials.

BENJAMIN: Are you going to close campus? How long are you going to close the campus? How are you going to trace these cases? All of these things have enormous implications not just for the university community, but also, of course, the community at large.

NADWORNY: Given this reality, colleges are worried about liability. When students get sick, could they be sued? Congress has floated the idea of providing a liability waiver for colleges. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, says he'll support this. The other thing that Congress can do? - give colleges and universities more money. Higher ed groups have said they need an additional $46 billion to weather the storm.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF I/O'S "TWINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.