The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Reopening American Workplaces and Schools

On May 12, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing titled, “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” The hearing allowed the committee and four public health experts to discuss risks and best practices moving forward for reopening workplaces and schools as states begin to reopen their economies after COVID-19 closures and lockdowns.

Witnesses included four public health experts from different U.S. federal agencies: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health; Robert Redfield, director at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the United States Department of Health and Human Services; and Stephen Hahn, commissioner of food and drugs at the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Access to testing for the virus was a primary focus of the hearing, and both sides of the aisle agreed that more testing is needed to persuade students that they can safely return to campus this fall. While testing numbers are expected to reach one million tests during the month of May, policymakers believe that more testing is needed so that colleges and universities provide assurance to parents and students that returning to campus will be safe. Democrats worried that the U.S. would not have a sufficient number of tests produced by August, stating that the country has failed to produce enough tests throughout the crisis thus far. On the other hand, Republicans were confident that the U.S. could produce and conduct enough tests by this fall, viewing the number of tests already performed as an “impressive” achievement.

Witnesses discussed other efforts to stop the virus, such as treatments, a vaccine and other prevention strategies, but concluded that testing will likely be the best strategy that schools can offer this fall. Though treatments or a vaccine would instill the most confidence in students returning to college and university campuses this fall, Fauci believes the chances of producing mass treatments or vaccines by then are highly unlikely. Despite these shortcomings, Giroir stated that the U.S. is expected to produce and conduct up to 40-50 million tests per month by September, which chancellors can advertise as part of their return strategy. Redfield added that, in addition to increased testing, schools across the nation will also have to evaluate the role of social distancing on campuses, programs for personal wellness education for students and other changes to daily operations. Witnesses agreed, however, that these strategies will differ across the country as threats of a COVID-19 outbreak will vary in different regions.

Lawmakers also agreed that there are unintended negative impacts on a student’s education while keeping schools closed, recognizing that the closures created inequalities in education as students have different access to necessary resources while distance learning. Democrats called for more guidelines and policies to address these inequalities if students are forced to continue distance learning in the fall.

CUPA-HR will continue to monitor for any federal guidance on reopening schools as it becomes available.