College Presidents Discuss Challenges of Pandemic

College Presidents Discuss Challenges of Pandemic
by Grace Ferguson

The coronavirus pandemic has made planning for the fall semester a huge challenge for universities. 

On Wednesday, at a panel hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the presidents of four Boston-area colleges discussed what they’re doing to adapt.

Boston University President Robert Brown and Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun both reiterated their commitments to bringing students back to campus.

“But, in order to do that, it will not be business as usual,” Aoun said.

Aoun said his university has acquired 2,000 extra beds in apartments and hotels to reduce the density of students in dorms.

Brown said students would have to segregate themselves into households, though he did not elaborate on what that meant.

Both Northeastern and BU plan to conduct their own COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. They are also planning to isolate students who test positive for the coronavirus.

The two schools will be teaching in a hybrid model, where classes are taught both online and in-person. Brown said this was necessary because not everyone can make it back to campus.

“We are going to have to be more flexible than we’ve ever been,” Brown said.

International students facing visa issues, those with preexisting medical conditions, and students who have COVID-19 can still go to class in this hybrid model.

The University of Massachusetts is preparing for all scenarios, from fully online to hybrid to on-campus, said its president Marty Meehan.

President Pam Eddinger of Bunker Hill Community College said her school is planning to teach mostly online or in a hybrid model. She said some classes like labs could still be taught in-person.

Online class might sound like a safe option from a health perspective, but it comes with its challenges. Not every student is equipped to learn online. Eddinger said that Bunker Hill had to buy between 800 and 1000 chromebooks, plus some wifi hotspots, for its students this spring.

“In the 25 [to] 30 years I’ve been in education, I have never seen such stresses on students,” Eddinger said. “Everything from this huge switch online, which holds great opportunity for us into the future, was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced.”

Brown said BU has a considerable population of students with Pell grants. He acknowledged that the shift to online learning was especially hard for those students, whose homes might not be the best learning environments.

Meehan of UMass pointed out that those inequities have major consequences.

“If we leave these folks behind, we’re not gonna have economic prosperity in this country,” Meehan said. “This is an essential part of getting the economy going again, in making sure these students get what they need.”

Universities are already preparing to help students graduating into a deep recession. Brown said BU will be using as many resources as it can, from alumni relations to career centers, just as it did during the 2008 financial crisis.

But that still might not be enough.

“There could be a generational impact here that is much more profound than what we saw coming out of 2008,” Brown said.

Before the panel ended, all four presidents were asked to share one thing keeping them up at night.

“Enrollment,” Meehan said.

“The human factor,” Aoun said.

“Testing,” Brown said.

“Compassion,” Eddinger said.