WEST LAFAYETTE – After weeks of Purdue President Mitch Daniels signaling that the university was prepared to do all it could to bring students back to campus as a coronavirus pandemic continued, the university’s trustees laid the groundwork Thursday with a fall semester that would end at Thanksgiving and other measures meant to make that happen.
Daniels said the six recommendations approved Thursday were a “first installment” from more than 100 being reviewed by his 15-member Safe Campus Task Force, who he said had been on a “crash course” since being appointed March 31 to come up with ways to make a fall 2020 semester happen, as Purdue anticipates a record freshman class.
“Everyone should expect many, many more as fast as we can vet them and determine that they are practical to accomplish,” Daniels said. “It weighs on us constantly that we need every day if we’re going to do this right by the end of August. That’s why we have not delayed. Obviously, we’re going to watch events. But we weren’t going to wait and watch events, because it would probably subvert our opportunity to make this campus the safest and best prepared it possibly can be.”
Trustees set a second round of meetings, the first coming May 26, to go through more details.
THE FIRST SIX RECOMMENDATIONS
On Thursday, the six recommendations accepted were:
- Setting a calendar that started in late August and then cleared campus for Thanksgiving break, with any remaining parts of the semester finished remotely. That also would eliminate fall break to keep students from traveling away from campus, if possible. Purdue hadn’t set a firm start date.
- Setting a goal to have at least one-third of Purdue employees working remotely.
- Doing systematic, in-house testing of students and staff who show symptoms of coronavirus and for those who want tests, along with a way “for actively and accurately tracing contacts of those who test positive for the virus.”
- Adding an annual flu vaccine to required shots for students, faculty and staff working or going to class on campus.
- Maintain a 90-day supply of personal protection equipment on campus.
- Set aside “a substantial number of rooms” to quarantine students and those who test positive for COVID-19 on campus.
“There’s lots of topics yet to address,” Michael Berghoff, trustees chairman, said. “This is a process that has to get started, because it is our intent to have students on campus this fall.”
Trustee Malcolm DeKryger said the plan could be a template for Purdue’s regional campuses. He said the plan recognizes that “there potentially will be spots where we have to stop, back up and redirect.”
The Purdue trustees’ plan came during a special meeting Thursday, in what would have been one of the last days of finals week during a normal semester.
DANIELS SENT OUT THE CALL
Daniels has done more than hint in recent days that Purdue was aimed at something as close to normal as possible – including the return of students for the first time since Purdue went to remote classrooms and asked all students who could to move out of residence halls after spring break in mid-March.
Two days before trustees met, Daniels released a video that reiterated his contention – first made in an April 21 letter to the campus community that would up making national headlines – that students were eager to get back to campus and that emerging science was pointing to ways to make social distancing work.
Daniels said Purdue’s incoming class, based on trends with deposits for the fall semester, would put the freshman class over 8,000 students, which would be close to record numbers for a third consecutive year. Daniels also made a case that Purdue could avoid the financial straits of other colleges – including those that have announced wide budget cuts, staff layoffs or even closing – with a plan that brings students back to campus.
’“The world of science has learned a ton about the virus itself,” Daniels said. “For instance … the discovery that virtually all those at mortal risk having one or more comorbidities, and which of those are the most dangerous. The effectiveness of various kinds of protective tools and social distance practices. And, of special relevance to a place like Purdue, the consistent finding everywhere that the young people who make up over 80 percent of our campus population are at near zero lethal risk.”
On a campus built to be efficient and compact – and therefore crowded with 44,551 students, more than 1,900 faculty members and 15,000 staff – Daniels promised to “use time, space and technology in new ways to de-densify classes, and offices and campus gatherings.”
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
Berghoff said the next measures would look at how to handle accommodations in residence halls and food service – “Those are going to be important to figure out,” he said – and how to handle the close quarters of classroom settings.
Berghoff said he understood there had been rumors about plans that would keep new students off campus. He said that wasn’t the aim.
“The planning is all centered around having all of our students on campus this fall,” Berghoff.
“There will be a segment of the student population and the faculty and staff population that might be uncomfortable with that. So, there will be an option for those folks to participate remotely. That would allow, at least in current thinking, students who want to be in person and faculty and staff who want to be in person can do so. And those who don’t can do so remotely.”
How would that work for everyone involved? Berghoff said those details were still in the works.
The same went, Berghoff said, for how much the plan would cost. He estimated that pieces of it would cost millions of dollars. He said Purdue was developing contingency plans that factored enrollment projections – including the traditional “summer melt” of those incoming freshmen who simply don’t show up – among other things.
THE INITIAL REACTION
Daniels’ stance, defined as proactive and even aggressive by supporters and critics, met with a mixed reaction among faculty, staff, students and the West Lafayette community.
Assata Gilmore, Purdue student body president for 2020-21, said she was concerned about the impact of a semester with no scheduled breaks. But she said she thought the plan prioritized health and safety on campus.
“Many students have expressed excitement in returning to campus in the fall, myself included,” Gilmore said. “I just hope that we – students, faculty, staff, community members, etc. – all understand how different campus life could and will be as the plan moves forward.”
Emma Clemenz, a junior studying law and society and classical studies, said her friends were anxious to get back to campus, too. But Clemenz said she had her doubts and wondered whether it would make sense to flip the schedule, going remote during the early part of the semester instead of the end, to give more time to get a grip on what coronavirus cases are doing.
“I think Purdue – and Indiana in general – is rushing into making things normal again and that could be dangerous,” Clemenz said. “Online learning isn’t great, but I’d rather do that than see my peers and professors get sick. I want to be back at Purdue just as much as my peers, but I think going back in August is too soon and can lead to more harm than good.”
Taylor Bailey is a doctoral student in comparative pathobiology and president of Purdue Graduate Student Government.
“I am comfortable with in person courses, within reason,” Bailey said. “I do think that the large lectures – can be upwards of 400-plus students – are problematic and need to be dealt with systematically, but I do not see a reason that most courses could not be accommodated by a realistic level of protective measures. I do not think this comes without risk, but I think we should be working toward that.”
Li Qiao, an associate professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the faculty-led University Senate, said that she was personally fine with in-person courses and interactions on campus, saying that her risk was low as someone in her early-40s. But she said she had concerns about others on campus.
“Let’s say, once students are back to campus in the fall, no matter what we do such as every possible way to prevent spread of virus – smaller classes, social distancing, disinfecting campus, frequent cleaning, sufficient and adequate testing capability, etc. – there will be an outbreak, which is unavoidable,” Qiao said. “Young students will socialize, gather together, do fun things together, regardless. The most frightening part is that many young people don’t show any symptoms while having the virus.”
Attempts to reach leaders of the Campus Support Staff Advisory Committee and Administrative and Professional Staff Advisory Committee, two groups that represent staff members on campus, were not immediately successful.
Dr. Jeremy Adler, Tippecanoe County’s health officer, said Wednesday that the county health department “had some discussions with Purdue University” about reopening. Adler said he understood the plans would include ways to protect students and staff on campus, as well as what to do if students become sick during a semester on campus.
West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis – who has been balancing discussions about campus-oriented businesses hurting without classes in session with encouragement for people not to backslide on stay-at-home era social distancing guidelines – said he put his trust in Daniels to get it right.
“Unless you’re living in a cave, you know what’s going on,” Dennis said. “And the two big mantras we’ve been saying are social distancing and, when necessary, wear a mask. And Purdue, because of their plan to open this fall, is making that not just something to be heard, but something to be recognized and understood.”
In the background, Purdue is among dozens of schools facing class action lawsuits from students aiming to get refunds on tuition, fees and room and board. Purdue has yet to formally respond to one case, filed in March in federal court. Though a Purdue spokesman initially said that it was “sadly predictable that some plaintiff’s lawyer would attempt to profit from this unprecedented public health crisis that’s affected us all,” saying the case “baseless and has no chance of ultimate success.”
Berghoff said trustees stood behind Daniels from the start. That included how Purdue had staked itself as what he considered a leader in higher ed, as many colleges were more cautious. He said he believed Purdue would make it happen.
“We thought it was important to publicly state our intentions early and pretty firmly, so all of the work that needed to occur after to make that happen could do so in earnest, with intensity and with purpose,” Berghoff said. “We are foot on the gas right now, fully intending to have a residential, on-campus experience for everybody.”
Reach Dave Bangert at 765-420-5258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @davebangert.
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