Administrators, professors, a union representative and students consider the new realities of life on campus in the midst of a pandemic.

“With the threat of the coronavirus continuing into the fall and next year, colleges and universities across the country are struggling with whether to reopen their campuses — and if so, how. On one side of the ledger are the health risks of density if students return to the dorms and classrooms and facilities, especially to older faculty and staff members and surrounding communities. On the other side are disruption and derailment, concern about the isolation of online learning and economic loss for institutions, college towns and regions.

In an ongoing survey of more than 800 schools in The Chronicle of Higher Education, two-thirds said at the end of May that they were planning for an in-person semester in the fall. As colleges and universities make decisions now about their operations over the next academic year, what are the conditions for trying to reopen campuses? If students return, what changes to college life will be needed to contain and suppress the virus?

We brought together by video conference six participants in higher education to talk about these questions. One panelist, Richard Levin, a former president of Yale University, helped lead a state committee that early in May presented recommendations for higher education in Connecticut that could be a model for other states as well. First, the report said, governors in consultation with public-health experts should establish “gating conditions” for bringing students back to campus. These include deciding that the prevalence of Covid-19 is low enough to resume operations; ensuring that schools have the capacity to test students upon arrival and at other intervals, as well as faculty and staff members who come to work on campus, and to conduct contact tracing; and providing guidance about masks, physical distancing and density for dorms, dining halls and classrooms. The report also recommends giving schools that comply with the applicable state regulations immunity from lawsuits for infections that occur on campus. (The report suggests treating community colleges, which account for about a third of undergraduates nationwide, like offices or other nonresidential settings, because close to 99 percent of students commute rather than live in dorms.)”

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