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Pitt and Drexel extend remote instruction; Congress scrutinizes colleges and student housing company

The University of Pittsburgh will extend its period of remote instruction until Sept. 14, Ann E. Cudd, the university’s provost and senior vice chancellor, said in a written statement Wednesday. Pitt began its fall term this week with remote classes and had planned to move to mostly in-person next week. But Cudd said the university made the adjustment today to “allow for completion of staged arrival and shelter-in-place procedures so that all students can start in-person classes at the same time.”

Drexel University, located in Philadelphia, will remain closed to undergraduates with its courses remaining remote throughout the fall term.

“We had all hoped to stage our gradual return to campus,” John Fry, Drexel’s president, said in a statement, “but the shifting nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on other colleges and universities has necessitated a change of course for Drexel.”

The University of Notre Dame on Tuesday announced it was suspending in-person classes for two weeks after a spike of COVID-19 cases among students. And Michigan State University told students who had planned to live in residence halls to stay home as the university moved courses that were scheduled for in-person formats to remote ones. Those moves followed the Monday decision by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to go remote and to send undergraduates home after several COVID-19 clusters emerged among students.

— Paul Fain

Two progressive members of Congress are probing a student housing developer for pressing universities this spring on the financial ramifications of their fall reopening plans and the possibility they would cut housing occupancy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Rashida Tlaib, both Democrats, on Wednesday sent a letter to John G. Picerne, the founder and CEO of housing developer and operator Corvias. They requested information about the Rhode Island-based company allegedly “putting profits above public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As first reported in Inside Higher Ed earlier this month, Corvias wrote to public university officials in at least two states in May, telling university leaders the company had not accepted the risk of universities taking “unilateral actions” that would hurt student housing revenue. The company sent nearly identical letters to leaders at the University System of Georgia and Wayne State University in Detroit. Leaders at the Georgia system and many of its campuses where Corvias operates housing have denied any outside influence over their reopening decisions, as have Wayne State leaders.

Warren and Tlaib are asking Corvias to provide several pieces of information by Sept. 1. They include a list of all higher education partners for which the company manages, operates or builds student housing; copies of all written communications between the company and university partners regarding the status of student housing for the upcoming academic year; and information about whether the company has engaged in any legal action or communications telling colleges and universities they cannot reduce student housing occupancy.

Further, the Democrats’ letter asks if Corvias agrees with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s risk assessments for student housing occupancy, what steps it is taking to reduce risks of student housing residences it manages and if the company consulted public health experts or state officials before making arguments about the number of students housed in buildings. They also seek copies of the agreements between the company and universities and details about how those agreements allow for company profits.

“Reports that Corvias has been pushing for a less restricted reopening of on-campus housing that would be inconsistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines raise serious questions about the nature of these partnerships and the private sector influences affecting campuses as they make important public health decisions for the Fall,” Warren and Tlaib wrote.

Their letter also noted that an investigation of privatized housing in the military raised concerns about Corvias.

“It would be troubling if Corvias was once again prioritizing its profits over the health and safety of its residents,” they wrote.

Corvias has not responded to multiple requests for comment since its May letters were first uncovered.

— Rick Seltzer

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts joined two other Democratic senators in urging the federal government to ensure transparent reporting of COVID-19 cases linked to higher education institutions.

“As colleges and universities start the new academic year, there is wide variation in their plans for residential life and in-person learning and there is currently no national method for reporting and tracking COVID-19 cases at these institutions,” says the letter, which is addressed to the heads of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Because of the susceptibility of college campuses to outbreaks and the frequency of student travel across state lines, we urge you to coordinate with state and local health officials to ensure complete, transparent, and timely national reporting of COVID-19 cases linked to institutions of higher education.”

The letter notes an investigation by The New York Times, published July 29, that found at least 6,600 cases of COVID linked to college campuses. While some of the nearly 1,000 colleges contacted by the Times responded to the newspaper’s inquiries or had posted information about coronavirus cases online, other institutions refused to answer questions about aggregate case numbers, citing student privacy concerns. Some said they were not tracking cases. Hundreds of colleges did not respond.

“Currently the public is relying on voluntary reporting by institutions of higher education, which varies widely, to understand the role of college campuses in the spread of the virus,” says the letter from Warren and Senators Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, and Tina Smith, of Minnesota. “While the CDC’s guidance for colleges and universities encourages coordination with local health officials in accordance with applicable privacy laws, it does not specify a standardized format or level of detail for reporting cases or the frequency with which cases should be disclosed to the public. This lack of guidance is likely to create a patchwork of inconsistent information across states, localities, and the nation, undermining transparency and efforts to address the pandemic.”

The letter also notes racial disparities in health outcomes and calls for HHS and the CDC to work with state and local public health departments “to collect demographic data in a standardized format from institutions of higher education in order to monitor any disparities among affected students and staff.”

The Health and Human Services Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

— Elizabeth Redden

Sam Houston State University is getting grief for canceling fall sports and an in-person graduation but allowing 675 students into its indoor coliseum to watch the comedian Tiffany Haddish, The Texas Tribune reported.

The show, on the first day of classes, was safe, the university said. Face masks were required.

But a Sam Houston staff member told the Tribune it was “absurd” to allow the event to take place.

— Scott Jaschik


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