When and how businesses, organizations and other institutions should begin to return to normal operations is very much a front-and-center question. And there are no institutions whose reopening decisions will have greater community-wide impact than those in education.
In this region, the public schools are already grappling with whether conditions will allow them to welcome students back to the classroom in the fall and, if not, how to prepare for a resumption of remote learning. This week, state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, while not ruling out that public schools might reopen this fall, made clear they will need to be prepared to resume operating a remote learning environment. Any such resumption will have obvious widespread impact, on learning as well as students, parents, teachers and staff.
As for higher education, it was noteworthy to learn from the University System of New Hampshire that the state’s public higher education colleges and universities “plan to open to students in the fall.” The residential colleges of course include Keene State College, so not only is the plan of obvious interest to its students, faculty and staff, but the economic and public health ramifications for Keene are extremely significant as well.
An issue raised by the University System’s May 8 news release announcing the various institutions’ plan to bring students back to campus is what degree of flexibility the planning incorporates in case the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t sufficiently abated come fall, or, worse, we see a second-wave outbreak. The University System’s announcement vaguely refers to the institutions preparing for various scenarios, including online learning, in case “some forms of remote learning may need to continue,” but lacks detail.
Fortunately, Keene State’s own announcement, and subsequent statements by college President Melinda Treadwell, provide assurance the college’s planning recognizes the possibility that reopening its campus for residential operations may need to be delayed, depending on the course of the pandemic, noting there may need to be a “bridge period” of remote learning or a blend of on-campus and remote learning.
The college’s planning also contemplates close cooperation with health officials and Cheshire Medical Center to ensure sufficient testing, tracing and isolation resources are in place to bring back students. Dormitory occupancy will be limited to two per room, student arrivals may be staggered and handling of class sizes, sporting and other events is under review. Treadwell, who is co-head of the University System’s team coordinating a system-wide reopening plan, expects to present a full plan for all the campuses including Keene State by the end of June, and safety and monitoring for signs of a coronavirus outbreak are key points of emphasis in what has been announced so far.
Even so, there is a notable shift in the planning mindset. In an interview with The Sentinel, Treadwell said the current planning is intended to “control the risks,” enabling the college “to manage with COVID rather than shelter from it.” As necessary as such a mindset may be, one element not touched on thus far is the effect of the college’s reopening on the greater Keene community.
Certainly, local retailers, restaurants and other eating and drinking establishments are eager for the return of Keene State’s roughly 3,500 students, or at least a meaningful number of them. But what does it mean for the community if a reduced number of students are permitted to live on campus? Will that put even more students into off-campus housing in the city’s neighborhoods? If so, what ramifications will that have for the city’s efforts to control the pandemic or prevent a relapse?
In her time as Keene State’s president, Treadwell has shown considerable sensitivity to the college’s place in the community as a whole and has worked well with city officials. There is no reason to think she’s unmindful of these and other questions, nor to believe there won’t be adequate flexibility in the college’s planning to continue in a remote environment if public health concerns warrant. We expect the fully developed reopening plans she presents to the University System next month will reflect this.