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Senate HELP Committee Discusses How Higher Education Institutions Can Reopen

June 5, 2020

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CONTACTS
Brett Roude, Legislative Analyst
Christa Wagner, Senior Legislative Analyst

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on June 4 to examine how U.S. colleges and universities can reopen safely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the hearing, members and witnesses discussed the need for liability protections for colleges and universities, robust COVID-19 testing of students, and a reliable contact tracing infrastructure to ensure that students, researchers, faculty, and staff can safely return to campus. The AAMC has joined the higher education community in a letter to congressional leadership requesting liability protections for institutions when students return to campus.

In his opening statement, Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) emphasized the need for the government to create liability protection against being sued if a student becomes sick. Christina Paxson, PhD, president of Brown University, told members that higher education is in a brand-new pandemic, one that has never been seen before. “Even if institutions play by the rules [CDC guidelines] scrupulously, they [universities] would still be subject to class action lawsuits. The cost of defending those lawsuits will take away from financial aid, and other programs that support students,” she said.

Sen. Alexander also discussed the need for institutions to have a plan for testing. “A school can also contract directly with laboratories who conduct tests, review the Food and Drug Administration list of authorized tests, or ask for help from a nearby large university or hospital that has created its own test,” he said.

While supportive of the need for robust testing, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) raised concerns that institutions “are running out of the reagents needed to run their testing platforms” and have been left to use existing supply chains to find the necessary supplies to test their students. She called for the administration to work with labs at institutions to make sure they have all the supplies on hand for robust testing before students return to campus.

On COVID-19 impacts on the research enterprise, Dr. Paxson pointed out in her statement that an “extraordinary amount” of federally funded research is languishing on the bench due to this pandemic. “This includes research in areas such as combatting Alzheimer’s disease and cancer and the development of sustainable energy sources. Putting this work on hold not only threatens the future of research and discovery, but also the country’s position as the world’s leader in innovation,” she said.

Dr. Paxson also cited the AAMC’s joint recommendation with the higher education community, which urges Congress to provide at least $26 billion in supplemental COVID-19 emergency relief funding to federal research agencies to support the nation’s university research and scientific enterprise [see Washington Highlights, May 29].

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