Purdue University, for its part, intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively. ...
Distance between people, that is, less density, is now the overriding societal imperative. It could be argued that a college campus will be among the most difficult places to reopen for previously regular activities.
But in other respects, a place like Purdue may be in better position to resume its mission. Our campus community, a “city” of 50,000+ people, is highly unusual in its makeup. At least 80% of our population is made up of young people, say, 35 and under. All data to date tell us that the COVID-19 virus, while it transmits rapidly in this age group, poses close to zero lethal threat to them.
Meanwhile, the virus has proven to be a serious danger to other, older demographic groups, especially those with underlying health problems. The roughly 20% of our Purdue community who are over 35 years old contains a significant number of people with diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and other ailments which together comprise a very high percentage of the fatal and most severe COVID-19 cases.
We will consider new policies and practices that keep these groups separate, or minimize contact between them. Literally, our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them. We all have a role, and a responsibility, in ensuring the health of the Purdue community.
The approaches below are preliminary, meant to be illustrative of the objectives we will pursue. View them as examples, likely to be replaced by better ideas as we identify and validate them. They could include spreading out classes across days and times to reduce their size, more use of online instruction for on-campus students, virtualizing laboratory work, and similar steps. ...
We intend to know as much as possible about the viral health status of our community. This could include pre-testing of students and staff before arrival in August, for both infection and post-infection immunity through antibodies. It will include a robust testing system during the school year, using Purdue’s own BSL-2 level laboratory for fast results. Anyone showing symptoms will be tested promptly, and quarantined if positive, in space we will set aside for that purpose.
We expect to be able to trace proximate and/or frequent contacts of those who test positive. Contacts in the vulnerable categories will be asked to self-quarantine for the recommended period, currently 14 days. Those in the young, least vulnerable group will be tested, quarantined if positive, or checked regularly for symptoms if negative for both antibodies and the virus.
Again, these concepts are preliminary, intended mainly to illustrate an overall, data-driven and research-based strategy, and to invite suggestions for their modification or exclusion in favor of better actions. They will be augmented by a host of other changes, such as an indefinite prohibition on gatherings above a specified size, continued limitations on visitors to and travel away from campus, required use of face coverings and other protective equipment, frequent if not daily deep cleaning of facilities, and so forth.
Whatever its eventual components, a return-to-operations strategy is undergirded by a fundamental conviction that even a phenomenon as menacing as COVID-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life. Like most sudden and alarming developments, its dangers are graphic, expressed in tragic individual cases, and immediate; the costs of addressing it are less visible, more diffuse, and longer-term. It is a huge and daunting problem, but the Purdue way has always been to tackle problems, not hide from them.
Closing down our entire society, including our university, was a correct and necessary step. It has had invaluable results. But like any action so drastic, it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, those will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance. Interrupting and postponing the education of tomorrow’s leaders for another entire semester or year, is one of many such costs. So is permanently damaging the careers and lives of those who have made teaching and research their life’s work, and those who support them in that endeavor.
The COVID-19 virus will remain a fact of life this autumn. Natural immunity, which has been slowed by the shutdown, will not yet have fully developed. No vaccine can be counted on until 2021 at the soonest. It is unclear what course other schools will choose, but Purdue will employ every measure we can adopt or devise to manage this challenge with maximum safety for every member of the Boilermaker family, while proceeding with the noble and essential mission for which our institution stands.
Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.