Higher Education Reopening Dilemma Mirrors Other Businesses

By Greg Chabon

UPDATE: Monday, August 17, 2020

After one week of having started the Fall 2020 semester with some in-person classes and students in residence halls, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has terminated its in-person classes and will be offering online-only learning. This after experiencing multiple “clusters” of Covid-19 on campus (a “cluster” means five or more infections in a related area according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services).

Whether this is an isolated issue or a harbinger of what universities (and K-12 schools) may experience in the coming weeks as students return to some campuses for in-person learning, remains to be seen.

This in some ways mirrors the difficulty states have had with business reopenings, generally.  The states’ attempts at reopening have not been encouraging – 7 states have “paused” reopening, and 10 have “reversed” reopening to close certain business in the face of growing Covid-19 infection rates.

Posted: August 6th, 2020

Reopening schools seems to be the classic dilemma between two undesirable options – open and run the risk of greater Covid-19 infections and deaths, or stay closed and risk financial calamity or ruin. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced something of a “hybrid, phased in” approach to the Fall 2020 semester. As of August 3rd, campus housing for all residents has opened for move-in, the Carolina Union has opened and the library is in “limited opening.”

The UNC-CH Provost said that “we don’t just expect faculty, staff, students and visitors to wear a mask, wait six feet apart, and wash your hands often; it is a condition of being on campus.”  It seems UNC is taking the guidance of health officials seriously, but they are also planning for the worst.  The UNC Board of Trustees told chancellors on all 17 campuses to submit plans for cutting their budgets by up to 50% in preparation for the fall semester during the pandemic.

Most recently, a panel hosted by UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School warned that that higher education should be prepared for worst-case scenarios to play out.  Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agreed, noting the lessons of other industries: “I just look at what’s happened with Major League Baseball and the reopening, and now having to look at probably going to be shut down again,” she said. I think that this is likely to unfold on college campuses.”