As the fall semester just begins, we have already seen colleges and universities try to open only to reverse course, while others undertake extraordinary measures to try to stay open. All the while, coronavirus cases keep rising around the country.
As school leaders grapple with what to do, they must recognize their decisions have massive health implications for the cities and towns in which they reside — regardless of whether college students themselves are at serious risk of the disease.
There are, for example, 154 counties scattered around the country that are home to large colleges and universities, and 18.6 million people. In our home city of Ithaca, New York, alone, each fall brings nearly 30,000 students back to Ithaca College, Cornell University and Tompkins Cortland Community College — in a county with slightly more than 100,000 residents. And these learners come from across the nation and around the world, including many regions struggling with COVID-19. The plans of our campus leaders affect everyone in our region.
That is why Ithaca College and city leaders met regularly before the college decided it is simply not sufficiently safe for our students, faculty and staff or our town for the college to reopen. As much as opening would have financially benefitted the college, the pandemic and America’s response to it have become too unpredictable to plan safely otherwise for our campus or city. As colleges everywhere have had to revert to virtual modes, we are increasingly convinced that our town-gown planning — a partnership that will outlast the virus and stretch far into the future — has led us down a wise path.
Still, this was not an easy decision, and we understand why other schools opted to reopen. Tuition-dependent colleges — like Ithaca College, actually — want to meet enrollment targets to protect our financial futures. The families of students are among the most insistent on campuses reopening, a recognition of the importance of a college education and the campus experience.
And while the pandemic has been devastating for cities of every kind, those with colleges and universities have been hit especially hard because they relied on business and revenue from students, faculty, staff and campus visitors throughout the academic year. Since the March explosion of the pandemic, thousands of businesses have closed and sales tax revenues have plunged in college towns around the country. The city of Ithaca alone anticipates a $15 million revenue shortfall (roughly 25 percent of its annual budget) in 2020 due to the pandemic, including declines in business resulting from campuses going virtual in March.
The grim reality, though, is that we risk more harm to our community if we do not proceed with extreme caution and cooperation at a delicate time — a time of no vaccine, record numbers of infections across the country, a paucity of leadership at the national level, and a citizenry stressed and driven apart by months of quarantine. In such a situation, bringing thousands of students back to campus becomes a community risk as much as a campus one. Our college wants to reopen, and our city wants us to reopen. Still, as an institution deeply rooted in our identity as a private college that serves the public good, our obligation to public health and the safety of our students, families, faculty and staff must come first.
Cities and universities that have not partnered on reopening decisions would be wise to do so immediately. The questions that a town-gown partnership must address amid a pandemic are many. The matters we have explored together as we contemplated our fall semester options included the need for testing, isolation, treatment, and other health and medical resources that may be necessary; what communications would best keep city residents informed of virus levels on campuses and vice-versa; and how to align city laws and campus rules to manage safe behaviors (e.g., consistent limits on the sizes of gatherings for on-and off-campus students, and mask-wearing requirements).
These discussions have also brought forward the types of issues that most college towns have for too long been able to ignore. Local and state public health officials and departments are responding to this crisis with extraordinary resolve, yet face chronic underfunding. This hinders, for example, testing and contact tracing, which are critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19. One result for colleges that want to reopen is they must develop these mechanisms at their own expense, which requires shifting resources from their educational mission. The relative financial burden on smaller institutions becomes especially onerous.
The national politicization of appropriate health behaviors has further complicated matters. Rather than following a national strategy, individual institutions and cities must devise their guidelines and solutions. No matter how good town-gown relationships, such factors threaten the likelihood of successful reopening.
Even if a vaccine is found in the next year — a big stretch, according to medical experts — the need for colleges and their cities to work together to address this public health threat will endure. Because no matter when a vaccine emerges, this highly contagious virus will remain, and the campus and town residents who can pass it to one another must all do their part to beat it together. As these times remind us, we are, in fact, one community.
Shirley M. Collado is the president of Ithaca College; Svante Myrick is the mayor of Ithaca, N.Y.